Innocent until proven guilty, perhaps, but how much evidence does it take to turn innocence to guilt? More than she's seen, according to LeAna Moore, owner of the Mad Moose Caf in Sterling. But what she's seen was enough to take away her life-long dream.
"I've lost my life, basically, as far as anybody knows her life," Moore said. "(My husband) Jeff and I built this out of pocket. It took us 15 years of scratching. We're not rich people. We put everything we made in the last 15 years into this place. Now we're sitting here almost bankrupt and there's no proof."
On July 18, the Alaska Division of Public Health was notified that the microbiologist at Central Peninsula General Hospital had laboratory-diagnosed four cases of E. coli infection.
"It wasn't like there was a first case," said state epidemiologist Dr. Michael Beller. "There were several cases with no linkage to anything. And so our job was to find something, some common picnic, grocery store, party, some event or exposure that all these people had in common. We knew they had one thing in common: they were all sick. So we thought there had to be something else. But we didn't know what it was."
Identifying the particular organism, E. coli, gave Beller a trail to follow.
"That tells the approximate time interval between when the person was exposed and when they became sick," Beller said of the four-to-six day window. "Having that information, we asked people based on the day they started being sick what they were doing four to six days before. ... And we found they all were at the Mad Moose Restau-rant."
Brad Tufto, environmental health officer for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, was notified of the situation by Public Health officials the following day.
"I first heard about this on the nineteenth, and that was the day I did my inspection (of the restaurant)," Tufto said.
When Tufto arrived that evening, Moore was at a barbecue with her friend Kristine Barnes. Moore's sister, Lorri Renfrow, a waitress at the Mad Moose, was on shift.
"He told me that there were people in the hospital with E. coli," Renfrow said, who immediately called her sister to relay the information.
Tufto's report prompted Moore to temporarily close shop and send her employees home.
"He said, 'If you'll close, we'll come in here and take the test, and we'll find out exactly where it came from.' But we never found anything," Moore said.
Moore reopened the Mad Moose after the inspection, but lethal damage had already been done.
"We were doing $2,500 a day, but that came to a screeching halt," Moore said. "It went down to about $198."
In Public Health's final report, issued in November, DEC's findings included "inadequate separation of cooked meat, uncooked meat and other foods; use of a cutting board that could not be cleaned thoroughly; inappropriate cooling process for prime rib; and inadequate hand-washing between the handling of uncooked meat and other foods."
In all, 19 cases of E. coli were confirmed. The single thread reported in the November report was that the individuals "had either eaten or worked at the Mad Moose or lived with someone who had," describing that as "overwhelming evidence of a link between illness and the restaurant."
The report also stated "No common food items were identified" and that "All 13 food samples taken on July 19 tested negative for E. coli. Results from the culturette swabs varied from common organisms such as Streptococcus to Enterobacter cloacae; no E. coli ... was identified."
Beller said he understood Moore's frustrations.
"In the sense that no lab test found the bacteria in food in her restaurant, she's right. Unfortun-ately it's not a simple matter of going to a restaurant, testing and if you don't find it then everything's fine," he said. "The reality is that the only thing that these people had in common was eating at the restaurant. And what really was very much in every sense the smoking gun was that when we did genetic fingerprints on the bacteria isolates causing the disease, they were all the same. And one of the sick people was an employee at the restaurant. That didn't happen because of coincidence."
But that doesn't change what's gone wrong in Moore's life, too. She said she's facing several lawsuits as a result of the outbreak and she's virtually penniless.
"I'm home, flat broke," she said. "The thing totally killed me with no proof at all. None. No positive test results. They did over 50 food samples and I never got one positive test."
Lack of a positive test is not enough to rule out the previous presence of the bacteria. According to Beller, the genetic fingerprinting process breaks the bacteria DNA into separate pieces, seeing if it matched bacteria from other people who were sick.
"And it did," he said. "We know it was the Mad Moose, but we don't know what it was in the Mad Moose. That's the frustrating part. We share the same frustration the owner has. Something went wrong there or this never would have occurred. I don't know the absolute answer of what went wrong, but we do know based on fingerprinting that it did come from there."
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