When public health officials in South Carolina announced last week they were investigating an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to a Spartanburg-area Mexican restaurant, residents at the epicenter of the outbreak were left with more questions than answers.

Last Friday, Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), the centralized health and environmental protection agency in South Carolina, said that a single restaurant had been linked to 11 illnesses, but officials did not name the restaurant because the agency did not believe the public was at risk. After much criticism from the local community, El Mexicano restaurant in Spartanburg on East Main Street voluntarily agreed to release its name to the public, DHEC announced Wednesday.  

According to public health officials, all 11 ill were “associated with the facility” but DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick did not specify whether they were workers or diners.

Of those sickened, one is lab-confirmed, two have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a serious complication that can lead to kidney failure, and the 8 others with diarrheal illness are hypothesized to be part of the outbreak because of their link to the restaurant, Myrick told Food Safety News.

On Tuesday Myrick said it is typical for DHEC to not name an establishment linked to an outbreak, though he said that if officials needed more information from consumers or they needed to get the word out about throwing away leftovers, then the agency would be more specific.

“We don’t have any reason to believe that there’s any ongoing transmission or public health risk,” he said, adding that DHEC inspected the restaurant May 11, the facility received a 94 out of 100.

Regardless of the state’s rationale, on multiple local news sites locals lambasted DHEC for not naming the restaurant. A handful of readers of GoUpstate.com even named El Mexicano in Hillcrest as linked to the outbreak, though those comments were later removed.

“Why even print this is if you’re not going to tell us which restaurant it is?” lamented Manning Strickland, in a comment on GoUpstate Another resident, added, “Considering the fact that 11 people minimum have contracted a disease from a sole source, DHEC is failing the people it serves by not releasing the name of the contamination source.”

Part of the problem is that DHEC says it does not know what caused the outbreak. Was it food from an outside supplier? Environmental? Myrick said that officials are still investigating and El Mexicano is fully cooperating with that investigation.

Even when it released El Mexicano’s name to the public, DHEC officials said they had “found no conclusive link between the restaurant and those who have gotten sick during this outbreak.”

“We’ve willingly answered all questions, as well as reviewed our menu items practices since DHEC inspectors first approached us in the early stages of their investigation,” El Mexicano #6 Owner Martin Mata said. “We’re glad that DHEC has found that our restaurant presents no health threat to our valued customers. This is the first problem we’ve had like this in more than 15 years in the business.

“In the interest of all Mexican restaurants in Spartanburg, we felt it was important to come forward and share what DHEC has determined so far in its investigation and our willingness to assist the agency any way that we can,” Mata said. “We’ll continue to work with DHEC to get to the bottom of this situation.”

Local news coverage had recently turned to this very issue. What about the Spartanburg-area Mexican restaurants not linked to the outbreak? Some reports attributed slower business at some Mexican restaurants in the area to the fact that the implicated restaurant initially was not identified.

News Channel 7 talked to Luis Nunez, owner of two local Corona Mexican restaurants, who called on DHEC to name the facility linked to the outbreak. He said that while his restaurants were not involved, all Spartanburg-area Mexican restaurants could have their business hurt.

GoUpstate recommended DHEC name names so that the public wouldn’t just avoid Mexican food.  

“We understand that and we know that when people hear ‘outbreak’ and ‘E. coli’ that causes alarm,” said Myrick on Tuesday, when asked if DHEC respond to the criticism. “If we thought there was an ongoing threat we’d be naming names.”

That the restaurant stepped forward is noteworthy. Bill Marler, a leading food safety lawyer (and publisher of Food Safety News) said that not once in his 20-year career has he seen a company step forward in a similar situation.

Marler has blogged about what he believes is a trend towards public health agencies being less transparent during food safety crises.

“How South Carolina has handled this outbreak further drives a wedge between the public and public health,” he said.