BKD investigates food poisoning complaints at SA restaurants

Metro Health reports only one case in 2014

SAN ANTONIO – Despite weekly calls and emails from people saying they got sick eating at San Antonio restaurants, Metro Health says the percentage of actual cases is lower than many diners might expect.

"[It's] 1 percent or less," according to Steve Barscewski, who's Sanitarian Service Manager for the City of San Antonio and supervises all health inspectors. "Last year, we had one confirmed FBI outbreak," Barscewski tells Behind the Kitchen Door. FBI stands for food-borne illness or food-poisoning.

He says the complaints they get are similar. "Sort of the number one is...I went to a particular restaurant, I ate a hamburger or I had breakfast tacos and I got sick an hour later," Barscewski says. 

He says those scenarios are not realistic. "It's not likely to happen because the bacteria responsible, a lot of them, their incubation period is eight hours or more." 

Barscewski says some incubation periods can take between four hours and 45 days before someone shows signs of sickness. He also says it's not always the restaurants fault when someone does become ill. 

"Generally, FBIs take a couple of mistakes a lot of times," Barscewski said. "A string of mishaps that happen in a restaurant to cause food-borne illness," he added. 

Metro Health gave Behind the Kitchen Door two examples of a series of mishaps that led to outbreaks of food-borne illness: 

-- In 2014, a San Antonio restaurant received a shipment of bad shrimp. It was properly chilled and prepared by the restaurant. It was served in ceviche, a dish where citric acids "cook" the food. 15 people became ill. Metro Health traced the illness back to the shrimp and the seafood distributor. 

-- Years ago, SAWS reported a sewage leak. It wound up contaminating the shallow well of a San Antonio restaurant. The restaurant had no idea their well had been affected. Contaminated water was used to make ice and wash dishes among other tasks. Roughly 200 people got sick. 

The sewage leak was contained and the establishment is now connected to the city water supply. 

Metro Health says it's important to note than in both instances, more than one or two people reported getting sick. 

Steve Barscewski says, "sort of the gold standard is lab-confirmed, where they take a sample [from the patient] and then we end of sampling food and there's a match." 

Metro Health helped create a list of things diners can look for to help minimize their exposure to food-borne illnesses. 

High Risk: 

  • Roaches or rodents (they carry diseases; their urine or fecal matter is also a contaminant) 
  • Off-temperature food (not kept cold enough or hot enough; even ready-to-eat food, like hot dogs, should be cooked) 
  • Dirty kitchens (the dirtier the surface, the higher the risk of cross-contamination; example: cutting boards must be washed, rinsed and sanitized in a three-step process) 
  • Dirty restrooms (indicates potentially poor hygiene and can also be a sign of what the kitchen looks like)

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