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Restaurant in E. coli Outbreak Gets Cover from OC Health

A locally owned single location restaurant in California’s Orange County is getting some valuable service from its local health department — keeping its name from being associated with an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak.

That secret involves romaine lettuce the unnamed restaurant served last April giving E. coli O157:H7 to nine of its customers, and causing the restaurant to voluntarily close for the investigation. The restaurant management was so cooperative that four months later, the Orange County (OC) Health Care Agency is still keeping the name of the restaurant a secret.

Deanne Thompson, public information officer for the OC Health Care Agency, says naming the restaurant now (it was not named then either) would “not serve a useful purpose.”

OC apparently wanted to keep the whole event secret, and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) went along.

At the time, OC Health put out nary a word about the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak and in a county where restaurant closures are an obsession; there was not a word about this one.   Thompson says it was not listed because the closure was voluntary.

OC Health — with more than 11,000 restaurants, food trucks and other food establishments under its regulation — currently lists 88 closures by its inspectors in the last 60 days.

There is enough interest in non-health related restaurant closures that the Orange County Register publishes a column by Nancy Luna called the Fast Food Maven, which encourages readers who spot closed restaurants to provide the information to a newspaper via tip line.   Luna covers hundreds of closures each year.

But last April, Orange County was kept in the dark when Amazing Coachella Inc., a Coachella, CA lettuce grower located near Palm Desert, distributed its early spring crop of romaine lettuce far and wide.

Instead, the romaine lettuce first made its way 3,452 miles to Miramichi, New Brunswick where at least 18 Canadians were infected with E. coli O157:H7 because the Californian product was contaminated.

Unlike OC, New Brunswick learned of the E. coli outbreak shortly after it occurred. Two months later, NB’s chief medical officer announced that romaine lettuce served at Jungle Jim’s restaurant in Miramichi in salads and as an ingredient in wraps, hamburgers, and garnish was likely contaminated with O157.

The provincial government also said it had matched the strain to one case in Quebec and several others in California, USA.

At that point, Canada said its investigation was over and the romaine lettuce involved was long gone.

But OC’s plan to keep its citizens in the dark was not going well. Canada’s transparency meant the CDPH had some explaining to do.

CDPH for a while tried stonewalling, and then slowly dripping out information throughout July on the April outbreak in OC, ending with naming Coachella as the romaine lettuce grower, but keeping the name of the restaurant a state secret.

It seems certain, however, that were it not for the dual outbreaks with one occurring in Canada, it would have been like it never happened in California.

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