Boise & Garden City

Health inspectors searching for cause of salmonella outbreak at Boise restaurant

Five people have reported getting sick from salmonella poisoning since late February after eating at a Boise restaurant, according to the Central District Health Department.

The agency did not publicly name the eatery Monday, but the owner of Pho Tam on North Orchard Street confirmed to the Idaho Statesman that her Vietnamese restaurant is the one in question.

“I don’t know what happened,” owner Long Doan said. “We try to be careful.”

The most recent sickness took place in mid-March, but wasn’t reported to health officials until Thursday, Health Department spokeswoman Christine Myron said.

Health inspectors last week tested food at the restaurant and did not find any traces of salmonella or other harmful bacteria, Myron said.

“The cultures that they grew did not come back with any salmonella, so they’ve not determined a definite source for the salmonella,” Myron said. “We don’t know exactly how it may have gotten into the food at this point.”

The outbreak does not appear to be tied to salmonella cases in other parts of the United States, she said.

“We’re not associating this local outbreak with a national outbreak. We really think it’s isolated to our area,” Myron said.

The Health Department allowed the restaurant to keep operating, but Pho Tam voluntarily closed for two days so workers could do a thorough cleaning of the restaurant, Myron said.

Health inspectors are scheduled to visit the restaurant again Tuesday — a day that the restaurant is normally closed — to ensure that employees understand safe food handling techniques. The department will also conduct a full health inspection of the restaurant, possibly also this week.

Myron said those sickened included adults and children. Seattle attorney Bill Marler, whose practice focuses on food safety cases, said he spoke with a Boise man who said his 6-year-old son became sick after eating at Pho Tam and was ill for three weeks.

Every year, salmonella causes 1 million illnesses, 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most people are infected by eating foods contaminated by feces.

Salmonella bacteria is found in the intestines of people, animals and birds, according to the Mayo Clinic. The most common sources are raw poultry, meat, seafood and eggs.

Generally, people infected with Salmonella become sick within 12 to 72 hours of exposure, the CDC said. Common symptoms are diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever. The illness usually lasts between four and seven days, and most people recover without treatment.

Young children and the elderly, along with people with a compromised immune system, are more likely to become severely ill from salmonella than otherwise healthy adults.

In some cases, diarrhea may become so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized, the CDC said. In those instances, the infection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream and other areas. In those cases, antibiotics are needed to prevent the illness from getting worse.

The strain that sickened Pho Tam’s customers, Salmonella Schwarzengrund, is relatively rare. According to the Food Safety Program at Cornell University, four outbreaks have been reported in the United States since 1996.

Sixty-seven cases tied to handling live poultry were reported in 2007 in Massachusetts and New Jersey. That same year, 79 cases caused by people handling contaminated dry dog food were reported across the country.

The 1996 incident caused 11 people to get sick at two nursing homes and a hospital in Oregon.

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