After a Salmonella outbreak that claimed 97 confirmed foodpoisoning victims, and probably caused thousands of unconfirmed Salmonella illnesses, many employees at Subway restaurants involved in the outbreak have been cleared to return to work.  The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) has been conducting stool tests on the Subway employees to determine whether they were infected in the outbreak as well, and thus represent an ongoing threat to consumers.  So far, according to recent news accounts, tests have cleared 86% of Subway workers statewide. 

The Subway Salmonella outbreak in Illinois was likely caused, at least with regard to initial illnesses occuring in May 2010, by a produce item.  After learning about the outbreak, Illinois Subway stores took the admirable step of discarding all possibly contaminated produce.  The investigation into the outbreak is still ongoing, and it is not yet publicly known whether the IDPH, or any local health departments, have been able to determine which specific produce item was originally contaminated. 

But contaminated produce may not have been the only culprit in this outbreak.  Very clearly, the IDPH had concerns that Subway employees had become infected as a result of consuming, or having contact with, the contaminated produce items in their stores, and thus represented a continuing source of infection to consumers past the point at which Subway discarded all of its produce.  This is precisely why IDPH has required 2 consecutive negative stool tests before allowing Subway employees at implicated restaurants to return to work. 

More than any other state in the country, Illinois has endured many very large outbreaks in recent years that were caused by restaurant employees who worked while ill and caused lots of customers to become ill. 

Currently, of course, the Salmonella outbreak at Skokie Country Club has sickened 29 with confirmed Salmonella illnesses, and has caused an estimated 50 (and growing?) other illnesses.  Although the investigation is ongoing into the Skokie Salmonella outbreak, it certainly appears to have been caused, at least in part, by cross-contamination, sick foodworkers, and other foodhandling errors.

Skokie Country Club pales in comparison to the Subway Shigella outbreak, however, that occurred in Lombard, Illinois in late February and early March, in which approximately 125 people suffered confirmed Shigella infections at one Subway restaurant.  The final report has not yet been released on the Lombard Subway outbreak either, but it’s a safe bet that the report will be highly critical of foodhandling practices at the restaurant; and surely there were ill employees working during the outbreak exposure period. 

Far and away the king of all recent Illinois foodpoisoning outbreaks caused by ill employees and bad foodhandling practices, however, is the Vernon Hills Chili’s Salmonella outbreak in 2003.  Here is the summary of this unforgettable outbreak: 

The Lake County Health Department concluded its investigation into the outbreak on July 18 2003, by which time over 300 individuals had been sickened as a result of consuming contaminated food. Of those, 141 customers and 28 employees had tested positive for the Salmonella bacteria, while 105 other infected individuals met the LCHD’s definition of a probable case. LCHD issued a preliminary report that concluded the outbreak was caused by infected employees who contaminated food with Salmonella as a result of poor sanitary practices and improper food-handling. It was by this time also determined that the Salmonella associated with the outbreak was Salmonella serotype javiana, a relatively rare and virulent strain often associated with foodborne transmission.

Once the LCHD believed the outbreak was controlled, the department sent a letter by certified mail informing the restaurant’s management of a hearing scheduled for July 31 to discuss their failure to cease operations during periods where no hot water, or no water at all, was available, failure to adequately monitor their employees’ health, and the steps management had implemented to prevent future outbreaks.

Following the hearing, Executive Director Dale Galassie stated that Chili’s had violated local ordinances by remaining open and serving customers while without available water. Although LCHD decided not to pursue punitive measures against Chili’s and its management, the department sent a letter to Chili’s corporate parent requesting reimbursement of outbreak-related investigation costs, including testing and training of staff, in the total amount of $32,500. A health department official stated, “[t]hese were extraordinary circumstances. There were excessive costs in dealing with [the outbreak] and therefore we are requesting reimbursement. The good news is that it prevented a secondary outbreak as a result of cooperation of the Chili’s corporation, local media, and ourselves, but it doesn’t excuse poor local management decisions made that caused it.” After a relatively lengthy, silent delay, it was announced on December 2, 2003, that Chili’s agreed to reimburse the LCHD for the costs associated with the outbreak.