Editor’s note: The Orange County Health Care Agency provided the following statement to Food Safety News on June 24.

There are no regulatory requirements for length of closure period in relation to an ongoing foodborne illness outbreak investigation. The Orange County Health Care Agency Environmental Health Division conducted a thorough inspection and comprehensive foodborne illness investigation. In collaboration with the County’s Epidemiology and Assessment team, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended protocol for excluding sick food handlers and facility disinfection for norovirus was followed. Once the facility employees have met requirements for returning to work and the facility has been observed to correct all violations attributed to the cause of illness, a permit reinstatement is issued and the facility is permitted to operate. Our agency continues ongoing monitoring and surveillance and no further reports of foodborne illness have been identified beyond the exposure period.

Sick employees are likely the cause behind reports of hundreds of people becoming sick after eating food from the Pita Hot restaurant in Orange County, CA, according to information in an inspection report.

Public health officials closed the Pita Hot restaurant on June 19 for cleaning and allowed it to reopen the following day. The inspection report speculates that norovirus was likely the pathogen involved. The highly contagious virus causes classic food poisoning symptoms, including the sudden and intense onset of diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and sometimes vomiting. People usually become ill within 48 hours of consuming contaminated foods or beverages. 

Inspection staff from the Orange County Health Care Agency listed “ongoing foodborne illness” as the reason for closing the restaurant. 

“The person in charge (PIC) stated that there were two ill food workers/employees during the period of 6-15-19 to 6-16-19,” according to the inspection documents. “One of the two ill food worker/employees was interviewed on this date. Notification of the two ill employees was not received by this agency. . . The ill food worker/employee was directed to leave the food facility during this investigation, and was told to not return until 72 hours after the resolution of illness symptoms — stated to be 6/17/19.”

At any point in time, it is the legal responsibility of the person in charge at a restaurant to notify the local enforcement agency if two or more food employees are having gastrointestinal illness symptoms at the same time.

In addition to employees working while sick, inspectors documented several other food safety violations that could contribute to foodborne illnesses.

Of particular concern were foods being held at improper temperatures, which allows for the growth of pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella. Inspector comments about the temperature violations included: 

In the one-door upright cooler, raw chicken kabobs measured 48 degrees F;

In the three-door cold top prep cooler, falafel mixture measured 49 degrees F and hummus was 46 degrees F — the hummus and falafel mixture was discarded;

The food code required “potentially hazardous foods” to be maintained at or below 41 degrees F or above 135 degrees F when stored in temperature-controlled units.

The inspection report also details dirty equipment and cleaning clothes, inadequate plumbing, and evidence that an employee or employees are sleeping or living in the restaurant.

As part of the requirements for reopening, the restaurant operator had to throw out about 1,200 pounds of food.

The county health department did not specify how many reports of illnesses had been filed. However, a crowd-funded website, iwaspoisoned.com, reported receiving almost 200 reports representing several hundred people who had become ill. Some of the reports were about individuals and families,  while others were about attendees at catered events.

iwaspoisoned.com founder Patrick Quade said the reports started coming in about a week ago. When the Pita Hot name and location started showing up in multiple reports Quade started looking deeper than usual. He and other staff always thoroughly vet reports to the website before posting them.

“I am glad the health department was able to act quickly. We continue to monitor the Fullerton situation and hope it has been resolved,” Quade told Food Safety News. 

“We are happy to work with Orange County Health and our many other public health agencies and industry partners on food safety. We now provide food safety surveillance and data services for public health agencies covering 93 percent of the United States, by population.”

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