Health experts clear local eateries

It's about the worst thing a restaurant owner can hear:

Your restaurant turned up on a list of places where someone who got sick had eaten.

Especially now, when a nationwide outbreak of salmonella since early summer has continued circling through the food supply, bringing attention to everything from tomatoes to jalapeno peppers to cilantro – and beyond.

Frank Scibelli of Cantina 1511, with locations on East Boulevard and Rea Road, did what he could when he got the call: He started learning what he could about foodborne illness investigations, including paying for a consultation with a food safety expert who used to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And he opened the doors to his kitchens and cooperated as inspectors started tracking down his customers through credit card receipts.

Scibelli says he tried to look on the bright side: “The sooner we're looked at, the sooner we're exonerated.

“They took a lot of samples, they took an exhaustive amount – which is great. What we have heard is that everything's negative.”

The health department confirms that inspections at both Cantina 1511 and another restaurant, Moe's Southwest Grill, on East Boulevard have found nothing that the restaurants were doing wrong.

“(Scibelli) has been totally cooperative,” Dr. Stephen Keener, medical director of the Mecklenburg County Health Department, said Tuesday. “His greatest concern is that he wants to do everything possible to assist with a nationwide outbreak investigation.”

The outbreak of the strain called salmonella Saintpaul caused 1,167 confirmed cases nationwide between April 10 and July 4, with 22 cases in North Carolina. Before Tuesday morning, there were six confirmed cases in Mecklenburg County.

That number jumped to 12 Tuesday, after the health department began calling people who ate at Cantina 1511 and Moe's during the second week of June.

Lauren McGowen, a spokesperson for Atlanta-based Focus Brands, which owns Moe's, confirmed that the restaurant was inspected and no problems were found.

Keener emphasized that the two restaurants are not being blamed and the location – both are across the street from one another on East Boulevard – is a coincidence.

When a case of salmonella is confirmed – and that takes a visit to a doctor, clinic or hospital for a stool sample – the health department takes a history of what and where the person ate. Then they look for people who may have eaten the same thing or at the same place.

Foodborne illnesses such as salmonella can affect people different ways. One person may get a stomachache or diarrhea and wait it out, another might get sick enough to see a doctor.

“What we've found when we're making these calls is, people will say, ‘You know what, I did have gastrointestinal symptoms but it wasn't bad enough to see a doctor,'” Keener said.

And since this strain has an incubation period of up to seven days, and people may be interviewed several weeks after the fact, that can lead to a long list of possibilities.

“The people we've talked to have eaten at a lot of restaurants,” says Keener. “And not just in Mecklenburg County. People have been traveling.”

For health inspectors, tracking down the cause of this particular outbreak has been unusually difficult. The suspect foods, like certain kinds of tomatoes, are common, and huge food distribution systems mean they could come from any number of places. Nationally, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working with state health departments to discover the source, including looking at clusters of cases linked to restaurants and studying outbreaks that started in New Mexico and Texas before spreading to 40 more states, the District of Columbia and Canada.

Some lawmakers and consumer advocates are pointing to the outbreak – being called the worst in a decade – as proof that the 2002 Bioterrorism Act has flaws. The act provides for recordkeeping so that foods can be traced back to their origins, but doesn't specify formats and only goes a short way through the system, leaving out growers and retailers.

At this point, said Keener, health inspectors are looking at herbs, spices and food additives in addition to certain types of tomatoes and jalapeno and serrano peppers.

“It's not something as simple as the E.coli in the spinach (last fall) or the Castleberry (canned chili) recall. This one is a little bit more complicated,” said Keener. “If it were every tomato, then everybody would be sick.

“You have to keep an open mind. As soon as you grab on to one thing (to blame), you start ignoring other things.”

Keener also emphasized that the restaurants themselves are not to blame. Both have been inspected, samples have been taken, and employees have been interviewed. And no problems have been found.

“This is nothing about the restaurants,” Keener said. “This is part of a nationwide investigation of food products that are supplied to restaurants.”

As for Cantina 1511, Keener feels so confident the restaurant isn't to blame that he ate there himself, just last week.

“I feel great,” he said. “And it was a great meal, too.”