Mexican Restaurant Believed Source of Seattle E. coli Outbreak

The Ixtapa Mexican restaurant in Lake Stevens, Washington has emerged as the likely culprit in the <"">E. coli outbreak that sickened 17 people in Snohomish County, health officials reported yesterday.  Officials noted that 13 of the 14 people who fell ill ate at the restaurant, which has voluntarily closed, according to the Snohomish Health District.

The owner is cooperating with officials to resolve food-safety problems.  Health District spokeswoman Suzanne Pate said the restaurant was being “very cooperative.”  Public health workers will oversee sanitizing the restaurant, disposing of all opened food products, and are trying to identify the specific contaminated food source.  “It’s like looking for a needle in the haystack,” Pate said.  Ixtapa owners said other restaurants in Snohomish County that go by the same name have not been implicated in the illnesses.  “Food safety and the health of our customers is the No. 1 priority of Ixtapa’s owners and employees,” said a statement issued by the restaurant.  “All of our employees are certified through state-approved food safety programs, and we set the highest standards for compliance.”

The illnesses began between October 7 and 17, with most sickened people reportedly eating at the Ixtapa restaurant between October 2 and 3.  Two of those who fell ill were hospitalized and three of the 17 sickened people did not eat at the restaurant.  Health workers are reviewing those three cases to see if any sort of pattern emerges among them. “Sometimes links emerge later,” Pate said. “Or there’s a possibility they might be three of the usual cases we see a year.”  A fourth person who fell ill has not yet been interviewed.  Snohomish County sees between 16 and 20 reported cases of E. coli in any given year, “so this is a significant number,” Pate said of the confirmed cases.

Meanwhile, there have been a number of recent E. coli contamination outbreaks, including one involving California lettuce that affected numerous people in a variety of states and beef in Vermont, as well as another in which, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said cattle fed an ethanol byproduct called distiller’s grain, which is a cheap and common feed, have a higher concentration of acid in their digestive tracts and are more likely to have E. coli than corn-fed cattle.  The USDA did not advise farmers to stop feeding distiller’s grain to cattle.

Pate said E. coli is a fecal-oral form of contamination.  It could be picked up if someone “patted a sheep and ate cotton candy,” for example, or changed a diaper, then prepared food without washing hands first, she said.  E. coli are a group of bacteria found in animal intestines and feces.  Some strains are necessary for digestion, while come can be deadly, such as the O157:H7 strain that is generally found to be the culprit in E. coli-related food-borne illness outbreaks and is to blame in this outbreak.  O157:H7 is among those E. coli that may cause serious disease—such as fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, and deadly septicemia—and are in a group called Verocytotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC) that are linked to food poisoning.  Left untreated, E. coli toxicity can result in kidney damage and failure and death.

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