The Seattle Times reported today that 300 detainees being held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma/Pierce County became ill with food poisoning Sunday night.  Some workers at the facility also fell ill with symptoms of food poisoning, including diarrhea and vomiting.  The Times’ report on the outbreak included the following:

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department officials said they were contacted Saturday night after about 180 detainees were treated for diarrhea, nausea and vomiting at the detention-center clinic.

They had been served three meals that day that included hamburger-potato casserole for lunch and beef sausage and coleslaw for dinner.

Most began showing symptoms late Saturday, Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said, adding that detention-center staff, who sometimes eat there, also got ill.

Joby Winans, public health-information officer, said Tacoma-Pierce County health officials were at the detention center Sunday, Monday and again Tuesday to try to determine what made so many people sick.

The CDC estimates that 76 million foodborne illness, or food poisoning, cases occur in the United States every year, which means that one in four Americans contracts a foodborne illness annually after eating foods contaminated with such pathogens as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Hepatitis A, Campylobacter, Shigella, Norovirus, and Listeria. Approximately 325,000 people are hospitalized with a diagnosis of food poisoning, and 5,000 die. The estimated costs in terms of medical expenses and lost wages or productivity are between $6.5 and $34.9 billion (Buzby and Roberts, 1997; Mead, et al., 1999).

While most foodborne illness cases go unreported to health departments, nearly 13.8 million food poisoning cases are caused by known agents: 30% by bacteria, 67% by viruses, and 3% parasites (Mead, et al., 1999).