Restaurant is scrutinized in salmonella cases

Health investigators have converged on a Charlotte-area restaurant suspected of being a source of multiple salmonella illnesses, and they're analyzing the facility's suppliers for any possible link to a national outbreak that has sickened more than 1,000 people, officials said Friday.

State food protection experts took 42 samples from the restaurant, which was not identified, including a variety of vegetables, fruits and spices. By analyzing the samples and those who ate at the restaurant in the second week of June, investigators hope to identify specific connections between the food and any bacteria.

Dr. Steve Keener, medical director of the Mecklenburg County Health Department, said six cases of Salmonella St. Paul, the same strain that has been identified in outbreaks around the nation, have been identified in Mecklenburg in the past two to three weeks. All six people suffered mild gastrointestinal symptoms in early June. None were hospitalized, and all have recovered.

In the past week, lab results showed they were all the same strain of bacteria as has been implicated in the national outbreak.

When health department employees interviewed the victims about what they had eaten, they named three or four local restaurants, and all have been inspected by local health officials.

Keener would not name the restaurants because he says there is no evidence at this point that they were connected with the outbreak. Because the illnesses occurred in early June, he said it's unlikely health officials will find any positive samples that could be connected to the infections. “We're still conducting the investigation,” he said.

None of the items taken from the Charlotte-area restaurant came from North Carolina, but officials declined to further discuss their origins until tests are completed next week.

Federal health investigators initially blamed raw tomatoes but have expanded the list of suspects to include jalapenos and cilantro. The government advises people to avoid certain raw tomatoes – red round, plum and Roma – unless they were grown in areas cleared of suspicion, and they're asking people prone to illness to avoid raw jalapeno and serrano peppers.

Ongoing studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which just finished comparing 144 people who got sick in June with 287 people who live near them but didn't get sick, have so far proved inconclusive.

Having a specific site in Charlotte allows investigators to consider a wide variety of foods that could be tainted. N.C. labs are testing foods ranging from onions to avocados to paprika. Staff writer Karen Garloch contributed.