The Minnesota Department of Health has been investigating the cases since Sunday when health care providers in Austin and Albert Lea reported a sharp increase in patients with bloody diarrhea, one of the tell-tale symptoms of E. coli 0157 infection.
Investigators quickly discovered that the patients had another experience in common. They had all eaten at a Taco John's restaurant in Albert Lea or Austin sometime between November 30th and December 2nd.
Health department spokesman Doug Schultz says a second set of tests will be required to confirm the E. coli outbreak, and determine whether it's linked to an outbreak in Iowa that sickened three dozen people who ate at a Taco John's in Cedar Falls. "The most certain link that we could have would be if the cases in Minnesota have a matching genetic fingerprint with cases in Iowa. Then we know that there's definitely something going on and that we need to look at where that organism came from."
Those test results are expected Wednesday. A Taco John's spokesman tells the Associated Press, the restaurants are working with distributors to check their products and the origin of those products. There's no evidence at this point that the Iowa and Minnesota case are linked to an outbreak of E. coli on the East Coast linked to Taco Bell restaurants.
In the meantime, Schultz says both restaurants have discarded their entire food supply and are serving new ingredients. The Department of Agriculture is also inspecting the restaurants to see if they can find the source of the contamination. But Schultz says locating the source could be difficult.
"With these situations usually there is a bolus of cases that occur during a very tight time frame. The product then is used up and moved out of the restaurant and unless you have continued distribution of product that's contaminated, usually you don't see any more cases after a certain time period. That's what we would expect to see in this case."
There's not a lot information yet on the conditions of most of the sick patients. But the health department says one older patient does have a serious complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can cause kidney failure.