Clarification: After the original version of this article was published, Summit County Public Health officials informed Food Safety News that the department had actually collected more than 70 stool samples in connection with the Salmonella outbreak. They said all samples were submitted for laboratory testing. For more information on Summit County’s response to this outbreak, please see a column by Summit County Environmental Health Manager Dan Hendershott. An outbreak of salmonella poisoning that forced the July 15-22 closure of a taco bar in a Colorado mountain town might never have been solved had the illnesses been reported only to the local health department. That’s because for “uncontrollable or logistical reasons,” stool samples of people who report their suspected salmonella illness to the Summit County Environmental Health Department are not sent to the state laboratory for confirmation. oscars_406x250In the most recent outbreak, however, patrons and employees of Oscar’s, a popular taco bar and restaurant in Breckenridge, CO, went to their own doctors with their illnesses. The private medical providers sent samples off to the state lab for diagnosis confirmations. Through its lab, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment confirmed a Salmonella outbreak involving 16 cases. Food Safety News sought further explanation as to why stool samples from a person with a possible Salmonella illness might not be submitted to the state lab by county health. Dan Hendershott, Summit County’s environmental health manager, said it mostly has to do with the county being a transient tourist destination. “This county experiences a lot of tourism based travel, “he said. “Frequently the complainant has gone home already, making sample collection more challenging.  Sometimes the complainant is unwilling to submit a sample. Sometimes the person is believed to no longer be shedding.” Summit County health officials believe the onset of most of the illnesses occurred between July 1 and 4, the busy holiday weekend. They moved to close Oscar’s on July 15, after the state lab work confirmed the diagnosed Salmonella illnesses. The state investigation had actually concluded that Oscar’s was the only common food source for the sickened individuals. When county health officials arrived at the restaurant, they found it was out of compliance with requirements that food be wholesome and free of spoilage and kept from cross contamination. Food valued at almost $1,300 was destroyed as a result of the outbreak inspection. In addition, owners Jeff and Margarita Palomo were told that three of their employees working with food were infected with the rare outbreak strain of Salmonella. The owners said they did not know. The violations that led to closure of the restaurant included cross contamination of spinach with raw beef and walk-in coolers being kept too warm. County health officials concluded the July 15 inspection by closing the restaurant and putting employees on restrictions. All violations had to be corrected and then verified before Oscar’s was permitted to re-open. Employees had to show they were not longer ill, and go through food handling education. Before it re-opened on July 22, the restaurant was washed, rinsed and disinfected throughout. Colorado’s Summit County may not send samples to the state lab, but it is not without foodborne illnesses. It has reported illnesses involving norovirus, bacterial toxins and staphylococcus aureus during the past three years. Colorado, like most states, lists Salmonellosis as a “reportable” disease, requiring health care professionals to report any case to the state within seven days, even if just suspected.  “When reportable illnesses are identified, they are reported,” said Hendershott. State reportable disease regulations also prohibit anyone who works in food processing, milk production or processing, and food services from working if infected. Summit County requires two negative stool samples from workers who were infected with Salmonellosis before they may return to work. At least one of the food handlers from Oscar’s says she has continued to test positive after three weeks. The re-opened Oscar’s is reportedly back to its previous customer counts, but it is not out of the woods with Summit County officials. It again had violations during an Aug. 3 inspection, with findings that packaged raw beef was in contact in a cooler with ready-to-eat tortillas. Also, raw chicken was being held next to bell peppers. Those violations will be reviewed during another re-inspection on Aug. 13. Summit County, with a resident population of less than 30,000, supports about 630 restaurants, largely due to the presence of four destination ski resorts. Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone are located within the county’s borders.  It is 80 miles west of Denver. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)