It's not every day that you hear about teenagers getting terribly ill from the deer they killed and cooked for a high school class. But that's what happened to 29 teenagers in Minnesota, who got sick after they helped hunt, process and cook seven white-tailed deer for an outdoor recreation and environmental science class.
Unusual as this tale sounds, it carries a food safety lesson for those of us who have not once butchered a deer for homework. The epidemiologists who investigated the outbreak think the teens may have been more likely to be infected with E. coli because they cooked the venison as kabobs.
"One of the risk factors was consuming undercooked meat, or if they reported the interior of the venison kabob being pink," Josh Rounds, an epidemiologist who investigated the outbreak for the Minnesota Department of Health, told The Salt. "We theorize that piercing the meat with the kabob skewer would be a way to introduce bacteria from the exterior of the meat to the interior."
Cooking the meat as steaks would have been safer, Rounds says, because bacteria on the surface of meat is killed by cooking.
Students who reported washing their hands after preparing the meat were less likely to have fallen ill. Teenage boys, Rounds admits, are "not necessarily the population that has the best food safety practices."
The venison later tested positive for E. coli — but a different strain than the O157 strain that has caused recent outbreaks, including one caused by eating Nestle Toll House raw cookie dough. But illnesses caused by so-called non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing strains are becoming more common, and public health experts say they're an underreported emerging threat.
That was true in this case; the hospital where two teenagers were treated for bloody diarrhea had tested them for the O157 strain, and the tests came back negative. Only after the state health department became involved were tests run for other forms of the bug.
All of the ill students recovered, and the high school, which was not identified by name but is in the Twin Cities metro area, decided to abandon the traditional venison barbecue for future classes.
The investigation of the November 2010 incident was reported in Emerging Infectious Diseases, which is one of the publications we like to read here on the NPR science desk.
So wash those hands, cook kabobs carefully, and think twice before having teenagers prep the meat for your next barbecue.