Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sandhill Cranes, Campylobacter and Alaskan Peas

A little more than one month ago, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported that they were investigating an outbreak of Campylobacter gastroenteritis. The outbreak, which had sickened 32 people in July and August, was limited to the area in and around Anchorage.

According to the final outbreak report, released one week ago today, at least 99 people either were lab-confirmed to be infected with Campylobacter, or were diagnosed clinically as suffering from Campylobacter gastroenteritis, without lab confirmation. During the course of being interviewed, outbreak victims reported having eaten raw peas from an Alaskan producer no more than 10 days before developing their first symptoms.

Alaska has just one pea producer – Mat-Valley Peas – and the peas eaten by outbreak victims were traced back to this farm. According to an article in the Anchorage Daily News, Mat-Valley sells shelled peas in 5-lb and 10-lb bags, with appropriate cooking instructions. But some retailers apparently repackaged the peas into smaller packages, and omitted the cooking instructions.

Mat-Valley, however, isn't off the hook. An inspection of the farm and packaging operation uncovered some serious problems. The field in which the peas were grown also was home to a flock of Sandhill Cranes. Several strains of Campylobacter were isolated from Sandhill Crane feces recovered from the field, from fresh-picked peas from the field, and from a mound of peas piled outside the processing building. And the water used in the pea shelling/processing operation contained no residual chlorine.

Operations at Mat-Valley were shut down and any remaining product was recalled. The state is working with the operator of Mat-Valley to correct the problems that were uncovered during the investigation.

While Campylobacter is one of the most common food-borne pathogens, this outbreak was unusual in a couple of respects:
  • The outbreak involved a normally cooked vegetable that was eaten raw by the outbreak victims;
  • The traceback was simplified by the presence of just a single local producer of the implicated food; and
  • Unlike most outbreaks, which involve just a single outbreak strain, there were several distinct strains of Campylobacter recovered both from victims and from the Crane feces.
All of the victims of this outbreak recovered from their illnesses, although one person developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, a secondary illness that occasionally follows a Campylobacter infection.

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