Experts Hot On The Trail Of E. Coli -- Many Unsung Heroes In Seattle Help Fight Outbreak

Scientists were eager to learn whether E. coli bacteria from a bottle of unpasteurized Odwalla apple juice this week matched the strain found among patients sickened by the bug. Dr. Mansour Samadpour was more than eager to respond.

It didn't matter that Samadpour, a University of Washington microbiologist and E. coli O157:H7 expert, left Friday on a long-planned vacation in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Yesterday morning, UW colleague Linda Grimm faxed him a genetic fingerprint of bacteria from the Odwalla bottle, and he confirmed the link.

"We really love working with him," said Dr. Russ Alexander, chief epidemiologist of the Seattle-King County Health Department. "He goes in on weekends, nights, whenever . . . and he likes working with us because we're pretty serious about it."

Samadpour, Alexander and a host of other health officials have worked night and day since the outbreak went into full swing two weeks ago. As many as 65 confirmed or suspected cases of the disease linked to Odwalla apple juice have been reported in Washington state, California, Colorado and British Columbia. Nineteen cases have been confirmed in Washington state.

"You have truly amazing public-health resources in your area," Dr. David Kessler, director of the federal Food and Drug Administration, said this week. "The sophisticated knowledge . . . surveillance and epidemiology here are the reason this outbreak was picked up."

Health Department epidemiologists, including Alexander and Janice Boase, interviewed dozens of patients, their parents and friends, and were key in establishing the link to Odwalla. Dr. John Kobayashi, senior state epidemiologist, analyzed case reports and gave his perspective as a key figure in pinpointing the source of the 1993 E. coli epidemic linked to tainted Jack In The Box hamburgers.

State laboratory officials, Samadpour and his UW colleagues tested specimens from patients and performed DNA analysis. FDA investigators tested hundreds of bottles of Odwalla juices for bacteria and are still testing equipment at Odwalla's Dinuba, Calif., production plant. Dr. Phillip Tarr, a Children's Hospital & Medical Center expert on E. coli O157:H7, consulted with many working on the crisis.

Odwalla officials also cooperated fully, recalling thousands of bottles of juice as soon as they were told about the possible link last Wednesday. "The company deserves public commendation and public support," Kessler said.

Greg Steltenpohl, Odwalla chairman, said in a news conference yesterday in Seattle that he doesn't know how many apple orchards might be linked to the tainted juice. FDA officials are analyzing company records.

Some experts believe fecal contamination might have occurred from apples that had been on the ground, although Steltenpohl said the company doesn't accept such fruit. Others speculate it could have been from carrots, which are grown in the ground and were processed on the same Odwalla production line as the apple juice.

Steltenpohl said the company won't make apple juice for now. If it makes it in the future, he said, officials will consider using pasteurization, a heat process that kills bacteria.

"We are immediately at work with getting back to a larger product line that does not use apple juice," Steltenpohl said. "We expect to actually have products as early as next week that are made without apple juice and extend our product line."

Steltenpohl said he has met with some of the parents of children who were stricken by the disease. But he said he agreed with the parents to not comment on the meetings.

In a filing yesterday with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Odwalla said it has general liability insurance totaling $27 million.

Steltenpohl said the outbreak has been difficult for him.

"Odwalla's philosophy and core values are based around nourishment. . . . I've made my life's work focused on health nutrition. Now to find our company linked to a problem that has affected public health has been very difficult."

Information from Seattle Times business reporter Greg Heberlein is included in this report.