BY DAVID REEVELY MARCH 14, 2012
OTTAWA — The investigation of a salmonella outbreak in three Ottawa schools and a daycare is focusing on two particular dishes served by a catering company that delivers to all four places, according to an email sent to parents by the caterers.
“Tacos and meat lasagna, which were identified as possible sources, have been removed from our menu, and replaced with vegetarian lasagna,” says the message from Jonathan Morris, who owns two franchises of The Lunch Lady catering company in Ottawa. Public health investigators are working on tracing the source of contamination that appears to have come from a Lunch Lady kitchen on Boyd Avenue.
Dr. Isra Levy, the city’s top public-health official, confirmed that as investigators have interviewed salmonella victims in the last few days, several of them have said they’ve eaten one or both of those dishes. But, he said, there’s no scientifically definitive conclusion yet. “People don’t really remember what they ate a week ago,” Levy said.
The early stages of an investigation are driven “more by instinct and judgment of the on-the-ground investigators,” Levy said, which will point them in the direction of particular foods that seem more likely to be contaminated. Then comes the scientifically rigorous examination, which in this case is really just getting started. Five inspectors and six nurses are working on it.
The investigation’s threads are still “diverging rather than converging,” Levy said. He’s concerned, as well, that identifying these particular foods might influence the memories of people the investigators haven’t yet been able to reach. In the meantime, the department has taken samples of whatever suspect food it could find at the Lunch Lady kitchen for analysis — ground beef, cottage cheese, sour cream, and some spices.
Given the facts known so far, there are plenty of plausible explanations for the outbreak, Levy said, from a bad batch of beef to a kitchen worker who didn’t wash his hands after handling a turtle at home (reptiles often harbour salmonella on their skins). Certainty is “some weeks or perhaps months” away.
The department now has 20 lab-confirmed cases of salmonella reported since it declared that there was an outbreak, including in 16 children and four adults. The cases aren’t all necessarily connected, Levy said.
“We’re trying to reach these people and ascertain whether there are links,” he said, partly by studying samples of their bacteria and seeing whether they match. Ottawa typically gets about 160 salmonella cases in a year, and they’re typically “sporadic background cases,” meaning there are no connections among them. Statistically, it’s likely that one or two of the 20 confirmed cases are like that and have nothing to do with the others. The situation is complicated by unusually high levels in the city of norovirus, an illness that has similar symptoms but tends to be shorter-lived.
The schools known to be involved are Steve MacLean Public School, Turnbull Academy and Jean-Paul II elementary school, plus Tiny Hoppers daycare in Kanata, all of which get hot food delivered by The Lunch Lady.
Schools served by Morris’s other kitchen, or by a third Lunch Lady franchise that serves eastern Ottawa, aren’t known to have been affected by the outbreak.