On Memorial Day, Fuego’s Tortilla Grill Restaurant in College Station, Texas, shut its doors temporarily because of an ongoing investigation by the Brazos County Health Department. Since September 2013, 30 cases of Salmonella have been documented with Fuego’s Tortilla Grill as the common link.
According to prominent food safety advocate and foodborne illness attorney Bill Marler, Mexican restaurants have a long history with nasty and potentially deadly foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli.
“Whenever I hear about an establishment like Fuego’s under investigation by a local health department, I’m reminded of all of the cases I’ve seen over the years involving Mexican-style restaurants. For whatever reason, these establishments seem to be again and again plagued by food safety issues,” said Marler.
For example, in 2013, the cuisine at Iguana Joe’s Restaurant in Humble, Texas made over a dozen people—including seven children—sick with Salmonella. Health inspections revealed dozens of food preparation and handling violations that were likely to blame.
Outside the south, the examples are still easy to find: in Washington state, On the Border Mexican in Clark County made as many as 117 people sick with Salmonella. Some of the infected were employees. This outbreak was made even more significant because it was associated with an exceedingly rare strain of Salmonella never before seen in the area.
In 2006, E. coli O157:H7 was on the menu at Taco Johns in Iowa and Minnesota. At least 77 people in both states became ill. In 2012, El Mexicano Mexican Restaurant in South Carolina made 11 customers sick with E. coli, including two who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a potentially deadly side effect of E. coli poisoning that can cause kidney failure.
Unfortunately for the Mexican food-loving residents of College Station, Fuego’s isn’t the first such establishment in the area to make its customers exclaim, “no bueno!” Coco Locos Restaurant made at least 10 people ill with E. coli. The illness was linked to ground beef that was either undercooked or cross contaminated with other foods in the kitchen.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the biggest Mexican-style fast food restaurant in the U.S. that has the most checkered history with food safety issues. Taco Bell wants its customers to “run for the border”, but they might just want to run from the restaurant: In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed 71 illnesses in five states from E. coli after eating at Taco Bell. Of those, 53 got a side of hospitalization along with their burritos and quesadillas. Eight developed HUS.
In 2010, 155 Taco Bell patrons in 21 states were diagnosed with Salmonella infections. Just two years later, in 2012, 68 people in 10 states were sickened. In this latter case, the CDC never officially announced the name of the guilty establishment—simply calling it “Restaurant A”—because they believed the contaminated food was no longer in circulation and, thus, didn’t pose a threat. A lawsuit later brought the Taco Bell name to light.
“The CDC and FSIS (USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service) often go out of their way to protect restaurants who make their customers sick because they believe that by the time the infections come to light that the threat is over. Not true—especially when infection is caused by unsafe food handling. Consumer safety should always come first,” said Marler.
ABOUT BILL MARLER: Bill Marler is an accomplished food safety advocate and attorney. He began litigating foodborne illness cases in 1993, when he successfully represented Brianne Kiner, the most seriously injured survivor of the Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. Over the years, Bill and his firm, Marler Clark, have become the leaders in representing victims of foodborne illness, and have gone against companies that include Odwalla, Chili’s, ConAgra, Dole, KFC, Sizzler, Golden Corral and Wendy’s.
Bill spends much of his time traveling to address food industry groups, fair associations, and public health groups about foodborne illness, related litigation, and surrounding issues. He has testified before Congress as well as State Legislatures. He is a frequent author of articles related to foodborne illness in food safety journals and magazines as well as on his personal blog, www.marlerblog.com. Bill also recently founded Food Safety News (www.foodsafetynews.com) as a one-stop resource for global food safety news and information.