The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control confirmed Friday it is investigating 11 cases associated with the same restaurant, but has declined to identify the establishment. Two of the cases are patients with Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, which is characterized by kidney failure caused by E. coli.
DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick said he understands the concerns of consumers, but the agency does not believe there is a current health risk. He said inspectors visited the restaurant on Friday, and it scored 96 out of 100 on an inspection.
“When it comes to balancing business interests with the public’s health, we’re always going to make a decision based on what’s in the best interest of the health of our citizens,” DHEC Director Catherine Templeton said in a written statement. “If we had any reason to believe there was ongoing transmission of disease or a current public health threat, we would readily disclose more information about the restaurant associated with the disease outbreak investigation.”
However, Myrick said he can’t recall a single case in his eight years with the agency where DHEC has identified a restaurant associated with a food-borne illness. There is no agency policy on releasing the name of restaurants linked to food-borne illnesses, he said.
Myrick said Templeton wouldn’t be available for a phone interview this week to discuss the Spartanburg E. coli cases.
‘Right to know’
A nationally recognized food safety advocate is lambasting DHEC’s decision to keep the name of the restaurant under wraps.
“People have a right to know. Consumers have a right to decide if they want to eat at a particular place, and it makes no sense to me how DHEC can justify protecting them while putting a target — literally a target — on every other Mexican restaurant in that area,” said Bill Marler, a nationally recognized attorney and author who specializes in food-borne illness cases.
Rita Roman, owner of Rita’s Restaurante at 1047 Fernwood-Glendale Road, said she noticed an immediate impact from the announcement and said her business has continued to lag. Her restaurant is not the source of the outbreak.
“It has hurt us big time,” she said. “I had 10 tables all day on Saturday. That’s just ridiculous. We’re all suffering right now. It’s hard enough to bring people to the east side to eat anyway. Something like this just makes it more difficult.”
Roman’s restaurant had a perfect score during its last inspection on May 2 and said she only uses fresh, high-quality ingredients in her dishes.
“It’s not fair,” she said. “I think (DHEC) needs to release the name of the restaurant to the public. I don’t want to see anyone’s business hurt, but it’s better than all of us suffering. Other (Mexican) restaurants have an advantage because they have several stores in Spartanburg. But we just have the one, so it’s harder on us.”
Marler has represented thousands of clients in claims against food companies, securing more than $600 million for victims of E. coli, Salmonella and other food-borne illnesses. He has testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce and is a national speaker on food safety issues.
“When you hide information from people, it distorts the free market,” Marler said. “If people don’t know why people are getting sick, or the source of that illness, they can’t vote with their pocketbooks and nothing ever changes. Why would a restaurant change its practices if there’s no accountability? There’s no incentive to change.”
Myrick said health investigators are still trying to determine whether the contamination was specific to one restaurant, or if it’s a supplier issue.
If it’s a mass production supply issue, Marler said, multiple restaurants in this area, and even in multiple states could have been affected.
Marler doesn’t favor a state law specifying a timeline for when an agency should disclose the name of a restaurant once it has been linked to a food-borne illness because it takes time to investigate and positively trace bacteria to a facility.
“They should get the data right, release the name to the public and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.
Social media and the Internet have opened the door for people to warn others of the culprit in food poisoning cases, he said.
“It’s different nowadays because of social media and the Internet,” Marler said. “You can’t — and I’m not suggesting you should — but you can’t hide names anymore.”
Spartanburg Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, said DHEC should release the name of the restaurant linked to the E. coli cases, and after speaking with officials in Columbia, Rep. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg, said the agency could determine in the next day or so on whether the cases are connected to a supplier or if it’s a restaurant issue.
The Herald-Journal has filed a request under the state Freedom of Information Act for documents related to the Spartanburg case, but as of Tuesday evening, no documents had been provided.