Eight cases of E. coli have been reported in central New Jersey and are under investigation, according to the state Department of Health.
In conjunction with the FDA and CDC, the Department of Health is in the preliminary stages of its investigation of cases in Hunterdon, Somerset, Warren and Middlesex counties.
“The state lab is conducting tests to see if the strain of E. Coli bacteria (there are many) match. The NJ Department of Health is still awaiting lab tests to determine if these cases are linked at all. The CDC will then conduct confirmatory tests,” said DOH spokeswoman Donna Leusner via email.
Leusner said that the bacteria may be associated with a restaurant chain, but would not confirm published reports saying the Panera Bread restaurant in Phillipsburg was one under investigation.
“We began to get case reports on March 28, 2018. With any potentially foodborne-related illness, we do a joint investigation with public health nursing staff and environmental health staff. Our goal is to keep others from becoming ill,” said Hunterdon County Health Officer Karen DeMarco. Four of the eight reported cases are in Hunterdon County.
The Department of Health gathers food history data from those who are ill, though figuring out the source of illness is not always easy.
“It can be very difficult to determine where someone got sick. Individuals could have eaten a number of meals in a number of places before getting sick. They could have eaten at several restaurants, at home or eaten food purchased at a supermarket. Sometimes the source of the food that made people sick is never determined. That’s why we conduct many interviews with sick individuals to get food history data,” Leusner said.
When someone who has become ill names a restaurant that they’ve recently eaten at, the Health Department investigates the restaurant.
“Our health division, as part of our standard practice, inspects all the retail food establishments in Hunterdon County. If someone with a foodborne illness indicates they’ve been to a restaurant, we do a spot check to make sure that the restaurant is upholding proper practices, such as proper washing and proper refrigeration,” DeMarco explained. “At this point there has been no definitive link to one restaurant.
When contacted by NJBIZ, the Phillipsburg Panera Bread deferred to the company’s corporate offices in Sunset Hills, Mo. Inquiries there for comment were not returned at press time.