A localized foodborne illness outbreak in upstate New York has made national news this week.  Over 150 people have been diagnosed with Bacillus cereus infections from eating refried beans at the local restaurant chain, Mighty Taco. Initially, the cause of the illnesses was a mystery, but state health officials worked quickly to investigate the cases as the numbers rose fast from a few dozen to well over a hundred within a week or so.

Investigations are still ongoing, but the state agencies believe they have confirmed that refried beans were the source.

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Findings and Investigation

Those stricken with the illness reside in Erie and Niagara counties in New York state.  Upon receipt of the initial reports, the local health agencies quickly jumped into action. Most of those who are ill purport to have eaten at the chain between September 30, 2016 and October 6, 2016. A potential source was discovered within the week.

The state agencies conducting the investigations on the outbreak have checked the food safety practices of the restaurants at issue as well as its food items. Senior Pubic Health Sanitarian Jeffrey Jurewicz offered some good news in his public statement that the Mighty Taco’s Erie County locations did well in their on-site inspections. He commented “no additional food products [apart from the refried beans] or food handling practices were implicated… Mighty Taco’s food safety inspection record with our Department, across all their locations in Erie County, has been exceptional.” Niagara County Department of Health officials also confirmed Mighty Taco has safe food practices on its website.

New York state health officials issued a statement that they collected samples of refried beans from several Mighty Taco locations. They tested and compared these samples to those of ill individuals. Their findings show that those who fell ill had a similar strain of the bacteria than those found in the food samples. The agencies are bittersweet concerning their findings,

“We are relieved, yet troubled. The investigation of this outbreak is continuing, and all laboratory tests are not yet complete. The United States Food and Drug Administration is investigating the source/supplier of the refried beans. There have been no recent reports of gastrointestinal illness among patrons of Mighty Taco [since the refried beans have been removed from the restaurant].”

The Erie County Health Commissioner, Dr. Gale Burnstein, confirmed that there are currently no reports of illness associated with food eaten at the Mighty Taco since the date the refried beans were removed from the restaurant. At the time of the statement, the state agencies had just collected food samples from the Mighty Taco and were sending them to the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center laboratories in Albany.

In short, the state agencies found the Mighty Taco to not be at fault in the outbreak. The culprit instead was the third party supplier of the beans – Pellegrino Food Products Co. Inc.  On October 6, 2016, the Mighty Taco, under advisement of the state agencies, removed refried beans from their restaurants. At the time, interviews with those stricken with illness had identified that many of them had eaten refried beans prior to becoming ill. However, the Mighty Taco did not announce its third party supplier until October 13, 2016. Their announcement stated,

“The refried beans are a proprietary product made exclusively for Mighty Taco and supplied only to Mighty Taco. The producer, Pellegrino Food Products Co. Inc. is an approved FDA and USDA facility… Mighty Taco remains in constant communication with the producer. We have directed Pellegrino Food Products to ensure that ingredients used in future batches of our refried beans will not be sourced from the same lot numbers as those ingredients used in the suspect batch.”

Investigations by the Niagara County Department of Health are still ongoing. The agency is conducting its investigation in conjunction with the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), Erie County Department of Health (ECDOH), and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. At this time, the agency is evaluating the nature of the reported illnesses, continuing to interview those who are ill, collecting samples, and analyzing those samples. This process may take several more weeks.

As of the date of this post, none of the agencies have issued information as to whether anyone ill has been hospitalized or the ages of those who have fallen ill.

The Background on Mighty Taco

The Mexican-style fast food establishment, which has 24 locations in central and western New York, has been in business for over 43 years. State agencies identified twelve of these locations as locations patronized by those stricken with illness. Its flagship location opened in Buffalo, New York in 1973 by four men – Dan Scepkowski, Andy Gerovac, Ken Koczur and Bruce Robertson. Dan Scepkowski, the current owner of the private company, bought out all four original founders.

The chain is known primarily for its odd advertising and marketing strategies. This is the first time it has been in the national news regarding a foodborne outbreak. Although they have been relieved from fault, the Mighty Taco issued its own statement via its Facebook account this week as they did not want to be misquoted. Their issued statement reads:

“The Wadsworth Center, the public health laboratory of the New York State Department of Health, has identified Bacillus cereus in patient clinical specimens, as well as from refried beans collected from Mighty Taco restaurants, as part of an investigation into gastrointestinal illness among several patrons of certain Mighty Taco restaurants…”

The company has worked closely and diligently with the state agencies to get to the root of the potential contamination.

What is Bacillus cereus?

Unlike the infamous bacteria like E. Coli, Listeria, Salmonella, and Campylobacter, Bacillus cereus is not often reported in the evening news. Typically, the bacteria are found in Chinse-style restaurants as a result of fried rice left in the room temperature danger zone for too long. This led to the nickname “fried rice syndrome” for Bacillus cereus infections.

The bacterium itself is a rod-shaped bacterium typically found in soil and various food items. It grows rapidly in room temperature environments, and can double in its numbers within twenty minutes. Foodsafety.gov recommends that cooked foods maintain an internal temperature of at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit or be refrigerated within two hours of cooking to prevent the development of harmful bacteria – like Bacillus cereus. If foods are raw or cold, the agency also recommends they be refrigerated in a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below to inhibit bacteria development.

Like Shigella and some E. Coli strains, Bacillus cereus produces toxins that cause illness in human beings. Symptoms of a Bacillus cereus infection can show within thirty minutes to six hours of exposure to the bacteria. These symptoms include, but are not limited to: nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The illness is not considered to be fatal, and will usually run its course within a day or so.

If you reside in Erie or Niagara counties, and suspect you may have Bacillus cereus poisoning, you can contact the Division of Environmental Health at (716) 439-7444. As always, if you or someone you love is exhibiting signs or symptoms of foodborne illness, immediate medical attention is recommended.