Going public (not): E. coli outbreak at Chicago restaurant sickened over 100 in June

In June, 2016, people started getting sick after dining at Carbon Live Fire Mexican Grill at 300 W. 26th St., Chicago.

carbon-live-mexican-grillBy July 1, at least 25 people were sick with Shiga-toxin producing E. coli, and the restaurant closed.

Five months later, and cilantro has been fingered as the source.

By the end of the outbreak, 68 people were sickened, 22 of whom were hospitalized. All have since been treated and released.

According to a report from the department of health, cilantro was identified as “food vehicle” that likely caused the outbreak. 

All prepared food was disposed, food handling practices were reviewed, and all staff who handle food were tested at least twice for the bacteria,” according to a release from Healthy Chicago, an initiative of the Chicago Department of Health, said at the time the outbreak was reported. 

Carbón withdrew from the Taste of Chicago so that it could turn “its full attention to addressing the issues at its Bridgeport location,” health officials said.

The owners also closed their second location at 810 N. Marshfield “out of an abundance of caution.” That location reopened July 9, health officials said. 

Two lawsuits stemming from the outbreak were filed against the restaurant, one seeking more than $90,000 in damages.

That’s the PR version.

The team at Marler’s Seattle law firm had previously filed a Freedom of Information Act request and found more than 100 people were sickened and that 16 of 40 food-handling employees of Carbón Live Fire Mexican Grill tested positive for E. coli soon after the restaurant’s two locations voluntarily closed for cleaning July 1.

Lab tests confirmed 69 people were sickened during the outbreak, with another 37 probable cases. Of the sick people, 22 had symptoms so severe that they required hospitalization. Illness onset dates ranged from June 3 to July 23.

Cilantro is the suspected source of the E. coli based on percentages of sick people who ate menu items made with the fresh produce item. Inspectors collected 12 food items, including cilantro, but none of the food returned positive results for E. coli bacteria. The cilantro was sourced from Illinois and Mexico, according to traceback information provided to the health department.

“Lettuce was associated with illness in both multivariable models but was consumed by only 44 percent of cases,” according to the health department report.

“In comparison, cilantro was consumed by 87 percent of cases, and either cilantro or salsa fresca (which included cilantro) were consumed by 95 percent of cases.”

The report references “several critical violations” observed during a July 1 inspection, such as improper temperatures for several food items including red and green salsas, tequila lime sauce, raw fish, guacamole and cheese. Inspectors also noted improper hand hygiene practices among food handlers.

Chicago sets a food safety standard, then ignores it

The Chicago Tribune reports that inspections are government stethoscopes. They detect leaky roofs, Cobb salads that can tear up our insides, faulty elevators and buildings that are firetraps.

restaurant-inspectionAbout those Cobb salads.

The Chicago Department of Public Health requires “high risk” food establishments, such as restaurants, school and hospital kitchens and day care centers to be inspected twice a year. In 2015, fewer than half of them got two inspections, city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson recently reported. Grocery stores are supposed to get an annual inspection, but nearly 1 in 5 were not visited by sanitarians last year. Bars and convenience stores are supposed to be inspected once every two years, but fewer than 1 in 4 got a visit from inspectors in 2014 and 2015.

The explanation is simple: not enough inspectors. The city has 38 full-time inspectors to handle a workload that the IG says would take 94.

Would you like ranch or Imodium on that Cobb salad?

Foodborne illness affects 48 million people every year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — hospitalizing at least 128,000, killing 3,000, and making countless others miserable.

Chicago’s food safety inspection rules follow state guidelines, which are based on recommendations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But the city routinely falls short of those standards. For years, the city and state have agreed to “corrective action plans” that allow Chicago to continue to receive local health protection grants from the Illinois Department of Public Health. In 2015, that amounted to $2.5 million.

That raises some questions: Are twice-a-year restaurant inspections necessary to protect people from foodborne illness or not?

Why should consumers have confidence in food safety standards that state health officials consider negotiable?

Does Chicago need more inspectors, or more realistic rules?

If twice-a-year inspections are needed, then the city has an obligation to provide the staffing to conduct them. If they’re not needed, then there are better uses for scarce public dollars. The city needs to figure out which of those things is true, instead of leaving rules on the books and breaking them repeatedly. Taxpayers deserve to know their money is being used wisely, and diners deserve to know their local eateries are following safe food-handling procedures.

It’s not the first time the city has failed to carry out its own inspections regimen. In 2012, the Tribune reported that nearly two-thirds of the city’s elevators had not been inspected the previous year as required. Some of the buildings were downtown, where the city dealt with a backlog by allowing property owners to hire their own inspectors to check elevators. But many building managers didn’t get the inspections done, and the city largely let them off the hook, the Tribune found. Very few of the non-compliant building owners were fined, and the city failed to follow up with its own inspectors, an expense that could have been passed on to the owners.

The fees and fines paid by food service establishments don’t cover the cost of the required inspections — and in any case, that money goes into the city’s corporate fund, which pays for all sorts of programs and services. That money could be dedicated to the Department of Public Health to pay for inspections, though the city would have to find efficiencies in its operating budget to make up for the lost dollars. The city also could charge more for inspections and licenses, or raise the fines for violators, to help cover the costs.

But Ferguson makes an excellent point: The city first needs to determine whether it’s necessary to add 56 inspectors to its payroll. That means working with state health officials to craft an inspections regimen that ensures food safety and is cost-effective, and to codify those standards. The IG’s report recommends consulting with food safety experts — government agencies, NGOs and academic institutions — to come up with a science-based inspection schedule.

By keeping a rule on its books that it doesn’t enforce, the city is not being straight with Chicagoans. Meaningful food safety standards, adequately enforced, will give a hungry public the confidence to chow down.

 

E. coli free, Carbón Live reopens a month after outbreak

After more than a month, a handful of lawsuits and 68 customers affected from E. coli, Ashok Selvam of Eater reports Chicago’s health department has ruled that Carbón Live Mexican Grill can reopen.

Carbón Live Mexican GrillHowever, DNAinfo reported that the health department couldn’t determine the source of the bacteria that sickened customers. The Bridgeport restaurant had been closed since late June’s outbreak.

The owners of Carbón haven’t publicly commented since their restaurant closed, and there’s no mention on their social media channels. The health department did day that they fully cooperated with officials. They temporarily closed their West Town location and also withdrew as a vendor at The Taste of Chicago as cautionary measures.

Attorneys circled around affected customers, looking for new clients to represent in lawsuits against the restaurant. There haven’t been any updates on those cases.

25 sick with E. coli: Chicago restaurant closed

The Chicago Tribune reports a Bridgeport restaurant has been closed after an outbreak of E. coli affected at least 25 Chicago residents and sent at least five Carbon Live Fire Mexican Grillpeople to the hospital, public health officials said Friday.

Carbon Live Fire Mexican Grill at 300 W. 26th St. has been linked to the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli outbreak and the restaurant closed voluntarily, according to a news release from the Chicago Department of Public Health. The restaurant is fully cooperating with the investigation.

The owner could not be reached for comment.

Allstate using big data to help ID food problems in Chicago

Which of the city’s 15,000 restaurants and vendors are most likely to be the site of foodborne illnesses and should be targeted for a closer look? How can the city identify which establishments likely sell untaxed cigarettes? Which trees should be trimmed to minimize damage to power lines when a storm rolls through?

allstateAllstate, the Northbrook-based insurer, is tapping big data to try to answer those questions.

Earlier this year, Chicago began using a predictive model that Allstate’s quantitative research team helped develop to improve restaurant inspections. It combines and mines data the city already collected or were readily available to more quickly identify restaurants that pose a greater risk for foodborne illness and thus help prioritize inspections.

Tom Schenk, Chicago’s chief data officer, said the city soon planned to issue its own announcement about the food-inspection data program and declined to comment further. His Twitter feed, @ChicagoCDO, on May 14 tweeted a link to a report titled “Food Inspection Forecasting: Optimizing Inspections With Analytics.” Allstate’s participation was cited in the report.

Historically, each Chicago food inspector is responsible for nearly 470 restaurants. Among those, more than 15 percent of inspections result in at least one critical violation. So random inspections might not be the best way to prevent foodborne illnesses.

Allstate’s quantitative research staffers working on the city food project included lead analyst Stephen Collins. His connections with the nonprofit Civic Consulting Alliance, which was also credited in the “Food Inspection Forecasting” report, led to the project with the city.

Initially Allstate scientists asked “what is it we want to try to predict if we were trying to build a predictive model?” recalled Smart. “The aim was to identify critical violations much sooner, so what kind of variables or information would” foreshadow risks at food establishments?

In 2013, Chicago also began monitoring Twitter for posts that include the words “food poisoning” by people who identify themselves as Chicagoans. That initiative continues, Schenk recently told WBEZ.

Roadkill at restaurants; man sold deer, raccoons and other Indiana wildlife to Chicago restaurants

A Chicago man was arrested Monday after police made the unsavory discovery he was illegally selling Indiana wildlife to food markets in the Windy City.

Alexander Moy, 47, is being held in the Starke County Jail in Knox, Ind., roughly 90 minutes east of Chicago and is charged with two counts of up-roadkill_lgbuying and selling wildlife. Both offenses are Class D felonies, according to NBC Chicago.

Lt. Thomas Torsell of the DNR said Moy illegally bought the wildlife from hunters and fishermen and in turn sold the products to marketplaces in Chicago, particularly to eateries in Chinatown and possibly other parts of the city.

“We’re talking about some fish, turtles, raccoons and white-tailed deer,” Torsell said according to CBS Chicago.

The Northwest Indiana Times reports Moy told officials with the DNR the raccoons and turtles were mostly used for soup while the deer was “mixed in with other meat.”

17 now sick with E. coli from Chicago-area restaurant

The number of cases reported in an E. coli outbreak has increased to 9 confirmed cases and 8 probable, DuPage County health officials said Tuesday.

Six of the nine confirmed cases left people hospitalized, but all have been released, said Jason Gerwig, a spokesperson for the DuPage County stan.mikita.donutsHealth Department.

The Chicago Tribune reports as part of the investigation, a restaurant in Lombard, Los Burritos Mexicanos, 1015 E. St. Charles Rd., remained closed Tuesday.

Marco Arteaga, manager of the restaurant, said the restaurant is cooperating fully in the investigation. He said the cause of the outbreak is puzzling because none of his employees have been sick, and no problems have been reported at the restaurant’s other locations in Villa Park and St. Charles.

He said all the locations use the same food distributors.

10 sick, restaurant closed; E. coli outbreak in Chicago area

The DuPage County Health Department closed a Lombard restaurant in connection with the investigation into four confirmed cases of E. coli in people admitted to a county hospital this week, officials said today.

Jason Gerwig, a public information officer for the DuPage County Health Department, said his agency is looking at a Lombard restaurant as a possible source for the outbreak, and said the restaurant had been temporarily closed at 5 p.m. Friday as part of the investigation. He did not want to name the restaurant until he had received further confirmation that the four people with confirmed cases of E. coli had been there, he said.

Gerwig said the total number of cases confirmed or under investigation is about 10.

He said that it is “unusual” to have a cluster of cases like this, “which is why we are investigating.”

The four confirmed cases were all hospitalized at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, officials said Friday.

Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said her agency had confirmed that those four individuals had contracted the same strain of E. coli and that the agency is continuing to study other, related reports of E. coli in that area. She could not confirm how many other cases were involved or if the lab testing will be done this weekend or Monday.

6 sick from Salmonella in Chicago schools, linked to OrganicLife

The Chicago Tribune reports a recent outbreak of salmonella sickened students at five schools in the Chicago suburbs, and health officials have focused their investigation on a commercial kitchen in Wheeling that prepares lunches for the schools.

The children, ages 7 to 14, have recovered, and the outbreak appears to be over, officials said Friday.

The illnesses came to light at a school in southwestern Lake County, where one student became sick Sept. 20 and two others fell ill in the following days. One of those students was hospitalized for four days, but all have recovered, Lake County Health Department epidemiologist Victor Plotkin said.

Five additional cases were found at four schools in northern Cook County, but none required hospitalization, Cook County Department of Public Health spokeswoman Amy Poore said.

Health officials say they have traced the likely source to the kitchen of a vendor for the schools, OrganicLife in Wheeling, Poore said. Letters were sent to about 100 schools served by the kitchen, alerting them to the outbreak and asking them to look out for symptoms, which typically include diarrhea, stomach cramps and fever.

As of Monday, Poore said, OrganicLife was allowed to provide only hot or prepackaged foods pending an inspection of its kitchen and until all food workers are

OrganicLife markets itself as “the leading provider of healthy lunches in the state of Illinois.” Its website states that it serves more than 1 million meals a month at schools, day cares and universities.

Earlier this month, students at a South Side high school became ill after eating school lunches that had been contaminated with rat droppings.

I have no idea if the outbreaks are related, but rat droppings would be natural.

Ex-Chicago contractor took bribes for food safety certifications, jailed for over 2 years

WLS reports a woman who formerly worked as food inspector for the city of Chicago was sentenced to more than two years in prison Wednesday for taking bribes to obtain food safety certificates for people who had not taken required courses or passed tests.

U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber sentenced Mary Anne Koll to 2 1/2 years in federal prison on Wednesday, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. She will begin her sentence on Dec. 31.

The 69-year-old Burr Ridge resident was convicted last year of conspiracy to commit bribery for accepting at least $96,930 in return for fraudulently arranging to provide bogus certificates for at least 531 people, federal prosecutors charged.

Koll, an independent contractor working as a food inspector for the Chicago Public Health Department, taught state-mandated food sanitation courses and administered exams to people seeking certification between 1995 and 2007, the Dept. of Justice said. The course required 15 hours of training on food safety and sanitation, and state law required all food service establishments to have at least one certified manager on site.

Between June 2004 and June 2007, Koll fraudulently obtained certificates for people who had not attended the course or passed the exam, prosecutors said. Koll, who has since retired, got the certificates by completing the forms herself and submitting them to the IDPH.