E. coli outbreak may involve Ga. restaurant

MOULTRIE Ga. Tainted beef served by a Georgia barbecue restaurant may be linked to the recent large-scale E. coli outbreak in the Midwest, which previously had been limited to ground beef sold in supermarkets, according to a report by health officials in the restaurant’s area.

The Barbeque Pit voluntarily closed last weekend, on the eve of the Fourth of July, when the Southwest Georgia Public Health District determined a spate of local E. coli victims likely had all eaten beef from the restaurant.

All eight E. coli victims and four presumed cases were confirmed as recent patrons of the restaurant, while local hospital Colquitt Regional Medical Center has tested two dozen or more people for the pathogen.

On Wednesday, Southeast Georgia health officials confirmed that ground beef from the restaurant has tested positive for E. coli.

"We can now move ahead with confidence to help the restaurant operators take the decontamination steps needed to prevent the spread of infection and protect the public," said health director Jacqueline Grant.

The strain of E. coli in Georgia was a match to the ones in Michigan and Ohio, said Carolyn Maschke, public information officer for the health department.

Maschke said other former patrons of the restaurant continue to be tested because of symptoms that correspond with an E. coli-related illness.

The health department heard of the first case on July 1, and three victims quickly came forward.

“This restaurant kept popping up in our interviews, and we were closing in on the big holiday weekend, when barbecue is huge. We asked the owners if they were willing to shut down, and they agreed to do so," she said. "Losing that three day weekend was a big loss for them."

After the restaurant closed, local investigators on July 4 were able to take samples from the restaurant’s sinks, meat grinders and choppers to test for the source. On Monday, investigators at the health district learned that the restaurant had recently switched distributors, and the new distributor acknowledged that it had obtained the meat from Nebraska Beef, which also has been cited as a possible source in the Midwestern outbreak.

On Monday, members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture met with local health officials and the restaurant owners to investigate. The USDA is also investigating the situation in central and northern Ohio and in Michigan.

Calls to the Barbeque Pit and to Nebraska Beef were not answered by the time of this posting.