Costco E. Coli Source Confirmed: It’s The Vegetables, Not The Chicken

The source of the E.coli outbreak associated with the Costco chicken salad recall earlier this week has been confirmed by health authorities. The vegetables used in the popular product were found to be contaminated with the deadly bacteria, not the chicken as previously suspected.

As reported earlier by the Inquisitr, 19 people became ill with an E. coli infection in four western states, seven of them seriously. The illnesses were subsequently linked to chicken salad bought at Costco Wholesale.

The infections were discovered after several people reported buying rotisserie chicken salad from Costco sometime around October 25 and 26, who then complained of sickness between October 28 and November 3. Of the infected victims, five were hospitalized and two developed a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) subsequently ordered Costco stores located in Montana, Washington, Utah, California, Missouri, and Virginia to immediately remove the product from store shelves.

Tests performed on the chicken salad by the FDA and Montana health officials found a strain of bacteria known as E. coli O157. Although no reports of deaths have occurred, this specific type of bacteria is particularly life-threatening, specifically to children.

E. coli contaminated onions and celery are confirmed in the E. coli outbreak.

Speaking with USA Today, Craig Wilson, Costco’s vice president of food safety and quality assurance, verified that diced onions and celery used to make the chicken salad were tainted with E. coli.

Taylor Farms Pacific Inc. of Tracy, California is the only vegetable supplier used by Costco nationwide according to an ABC News report. As a precaution, Taylor has since issued an urgent recall of its diced onions and celery until an investigation can be completed.

Of the 48 million cases of food poisoning reported to the CDC each year, more than half involve fruits and vegetables. Food safety specialist at North Carolina University, Ben Chapman, said since fresh produce is uncooked, it is especially susceptible to impurities.

According to Chapman, “When it comes to produce, there is no zero risk. There are just so many points where it can be contaminated, between the field and someone’s plate.”

The multinational, membership-only club has had other food contamination issues in the past. Two years ago, a Costco store in California was linked to cooked rotisserie chicken contaminated with salmonella. The store ultimately had to recall almost 40,000 pounds of the foul bird.

Contamination can get into food through a variety of ways and this shows that even cooking may not eliminate bacteria altogether.

Costco chicken recalled in 2013.
Costco had to recall its rotisserie chicken a couple years ago. [Photo by Cate Gillon/Getty Images]

William Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in victims of food poisoning, says Costco has a relatively good reputation for food safety when compared with other companies.

“They are probably one of the better stores out there, which shows just how vulnerable a supply chain is to E. coli or salmonella. Even if you have the best food safety systems in place, it always requires constant monitoring and oversight.”

Marler noted that Taylor Farms also has an especially good track record when it comes to food safety and contamination. Regardless, he added that whenever food is mass produced, the potential for contamination is always very high, even with “sophisticated systems” in place.

Although not believed to be related to the Costco E. coli case, Chipotle Mexican Grill had to shut down over 40 restaurants in six states due to an E. coli outbreak earlier this month. The bacteria found in Chipotle’s food sickened 45 people and is a different strain than the one found in the Costco chicken salad. The source, however, has still not been determined by health authorities.

Apparently the U.S. government is getting sick of the food contamination-related illness outbreaks. The FDA announced in September new regulations to clamp down on U.S. food manufacturers. The new rules require improved food-safety procedures to prevent future occurrences of food-borne illnesses caused by bacteria contamination.

Even though the chicken salad product has been removed from shelves nationwide, the CDC believes the number of people affected by the Costco E. coli outbreak will continue to increase over the next few weeks.

[Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images]