Outbreak at Oscar’s of Breckenridge leaves 16 with salmonella poisoning
August 8, 2016
Sixteen employees and patrons at a popular Breckenridge taco bar came down with salmonella poisoning in July. This outbreak led Summit County health officials to shut down the restaurant until the issue was addressed — a process that took six days.
Morgan Stovall had been working at Oscar's of Breckenridge for only three shifts when the health inspectors arrived.
"I guess we knew we were getting a health inspection," she said, "but we thought they would just come in and make sure we were using gloves and everything; but that health inspector came in with someone higher up who deals with outbreaks."
An outbreak investigation
The health inspection on July 15 was prompted by three cases of salmonella that were reported to the state health department after Oscar's patrons went to their medical providers and were diagnosed with the foodborne illness, which can be deadly.
"The only common exposure among the three confirmed illnesses is consuming food at Oscar's restaurant during the week before becoming ill. Specifically, ill persons visited Oscar's on July 1 and July 4," read a letter from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to Amy Wineland, the director of Summit County Public Health.
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Salmonella is a bacterium that exists widely in animal populations. It's shed from the feces of animals and infected people and can contaminate food items that come in contact with it. Symptoms of salmonella include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, nausea and sometimes vomiting. Occasionally, a salmonella case is asymptomatic.
Because of the prevalence of asymptomatic cases, said Sarah Lopez, nurse manager of Summit County's Environmental Health Department, it is likely that cases of salmonella are underreported. However, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately 1.2 million illnesses and 450 deaths in the U.S. per year are due to non-typhoidal salmonella — the class of salmonella associated with the Oscar's outbreak.
About a quarter of all foodborne illnesses are due to salmonella, said Alicia Cronquist with the state health department.
There have been five other documented cases of foodborne illness in Summit County since November 2013. These illnesses have included a bacterial toxin, norovirus and staphylococcus aureus. The salmonella case at Oscar's is the only one in the past three years to have a confirmed number of infected people, health officials said.
Illnesses are much more difficult to confirm when sick patrons go straight to the Summit County Environmental Health Department and samples are not sent to the state laboratory for various uncontrollable or logistical reasons, as in the other five foodborne outbreaks since 2013. However, the personal medical providers who diagnosed the original three sick patrons in the Oscar's case then contacted the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which received stool samples at its state laboratory. Ultimately, 16 positive samples made their way to the laboratory, leading to the official confirmation of the illnesses.
Because the stool samples showed a rare strain of salmonella, the state health department was able to contact the patrons who were sick and trace the common exposure back to Oscar's in Breckenridge.
"We were contacted by Environmental Services on July 15," said Jeff Palomo, who founded Oscar's with his wife Margarita in 2013. "They said there was an anonymous report of an illness. And, from that point, we worked with them to resolve any and all concerns."
Oscar's inspection history
Based on documentation from the county health department, Oscar's has undergone five inspections since November 2013. These inspections uncovered several infractions: A wiping cloth bucket was found to have a sanitizer concentration below the recommended level; there was unsealed raw wood behind the bar; the staff made tacos using their bare hands; and in the walk-in cooler a box of tortillas was found on the floor in a pool of raw meat blood. These issues were either corrected on-site or through follow-up inspections.
On the inspection report from July 15, Oscar's was found to be out of compliance with guidelines requiring food be "wholesome, free of spoilage" and without "cross-contamination."
"A bag of spinach was observed in direct contact with raw beef in the walk-in cooler next to the cook line. Staff discarded spinach," the report elaborates.
Additionally, the walk-in cooler was observed to be a few degrees warmer than the required temperature, two thermometers were found to be inaccurate and there was no detectable level of sanitizer in the dishwasher.
The issue of food poisoning also arose during the July 15 inspection. "After interviewing staff members, this Department was informed that 2 or potentially 3 staff members had been working with symptoms of illness. All staff have been restricted until further notice. Management and owners were unaware of staff illnesses," the health department report reads.
As a result of the inspection, $1,266.95 worth of food was trashed.
"We discarded absolutely everything," said Palomo.
After the restaurant was shut down, a six-day process began to bring the business back into compliance.
According to the closure notice sent by the county health department to the Palomos, the violations listed in the inspection document from July 15 had to be corrected and then verified, the restaurant had to prove that its workers were no longer ill and that they were educated on safe food handling practices; all surfaces in Oscar's had to be washed, rinsed and disinfected; and, if any foods were identified as the probable source of the infection, they had to be disposed of. Oscar's reopened for business on Friday, July 22.
"We opened six days later with limited service; we've been extremely busy since, and we're fully open and operational," said Palomo.
back to work
Though Oscar's is back in business, some workers are still suffering the consequences of the outbreak.
"It's been nearly 3 weeks, and I'm still testing positive," employee Brittany Doyne wrote in an email. "I feel I should be compensated for all 3 of my jobs, not just Oscar's. I'm missing out on thousands of dollars I would have earned had Oscar's not gotten me sick. Nearly all of what little savings I have is gone now."
How the sick employees are being compensated while out of work is unclear.
Doyne claimed that after she got in touch with Margarita Palomo, the owners filed workers compensation claims only on behalf of the employees who inquired about the compensation, not on behalf of all the employees who were ill. However, Jeff Palomo said that claims had been filed on behalf of "the employees that have been affected" and added that many workers had second jobs to supplement their income.
To return to work, ill employees must fulfill criteria set by the county health department.
"The criteria that we established for the facility to allow staff to return to work is that they need to demonstrate two consecutive negative stools for salmonella if they reported to us that they had ever had illness or if they had a positive stool," Summit County environmental health manager Dan Hendershott explained. "Then they have to show two consecutive negative stools. If staff demonstrated to us that they never had illness, then they only had to have one stool that showed us that they were negative for salmonella. The other criteria that we put into place is that we wanted all staff coming back to work to have food safety awareness training."
He said that he recognizes the struggles that foodborne illness can pose for someone trying to make a living in the restaurant industry.
"We're really trying to work with these folks because we know it's tough," he said. "They're food handlers, they're in the food business and for us to restrict them from that is really taking away their ability to earn a living. And so we're trying our best to keep them working as much as we can while still protecting the public's health."
An inspection of Oscar's on August 3rd found "packaged raw beef in the walk-in-cooler in direct contact with a box of ready-to-eat tortillas" and raw chicken in contact with bell peppers. No direct cross-contamination was observed. These violations will be addressed with a follow-up inspection.
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