Following at least 10 reported illnesses, plus a temporary closure, health department hearing and fine — all after being in business for less than a month — a Mexican restaurant in South Bend, IN, is back in business.
While county health officials can’t be sure what caused the recent sicknesses linked to Fiesta Cancún, they levied a $250 fine, put the restaurant on probation for six months, and plan to do monthly inspections during that time.
Food samples taken from the restaurant and tested by the Indiana Department of Health were all negative for pathogens, according to Carolyn Smith, food service director for the St. Joseph County Health Department in South Bend.
“All the samples came back, and nothing was found,” Smith said. She added that the state health department realized the samples brought in for testing weren’t food items actually consumed by those who reported becoming ill after eating at Fiesta Cancún on Oct. 15, 19 and 21. The restaurant had only been open since Oct. 3.
“This was about a week later, but if there were practices, then the thinking from the Indiana State Department of Health was that we still might find something due to those practices,” Smith said.
She explained that the Indiana food code allows health officials to temporarily close a restaurant if there is an apparent foodborne illness outbreak involving two or more people who have ingested common food items.
A number of calls had come in to the county health department complaining about illnesses possibly linked to the restaurant not long after it opened. First there was just one party and then two, Smith recalled.
“Then a lady called and said there were seven adults in her party (who were sickened),” she said. However, she added, their healthcare providers didn’t test any of them.
One man called Oct. 16 to complain about vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps that he reported experiencing after dining the previous evening at Fiesta Cancún. Following his complaint, an inspection on Oct. 18 identified eight health code violations, five of them rated critical.
Fiesta Cancún was closed Oct. 25. A hearing on the situation was held Oct. 31, the same day another inspection was done, Smith said.
Meanwhile, the restaurant had disposed of all food items during the course of the six days the doors were closed and had already adjusted some of its practices, she said.
“They had made major changes in terms of the flow of food in their operation and created a room dedicated specifically for prepping. They had a meeting with their staff and also meetings with their staff and one of our staff members who went in and did some training,” Smith said.
A Facebook message posted Oct. 31 by the restaurant thanked customers for their patience, trust and support and noted that the doors would reopen at 2 p.m. on Nov. 1.
“If you previously had a bad experience at Fiesta Cancún give us the chance to gain your business back by letting us make it right/better for you,” the message read.
Smith noted that the restaurant’s owners did more than was required to get back into compliance with county and state food regulations.
“This group of gentlemen who run this restaurant were over and above on what they need to comply and the changes that they’ve made,” she said, indicating that the business had quickly become popular and inundated with customers.
A number of issues that cropped up during the outbreak and subsequent investigation made it hard for food safety officials to know exactly what occurred and whether specific food items served at Fiesta Cancún caused the reported illnesses.
The cases weren’t confirmed by laboratory testing, the food items weren’t collected and tested until several days after reports of illness, and nothing found in the restaurant could specifically be tied to foodborne pathogens.
The resulting frustration was evident when Nick Molchan, administrator of the St. Joseph County Health Department, told the South Bend Tribune that the county would like to send this message to local doctors:
“Hey, when you have somebody in and you think it might be foodborne illness, take a stool sample!”