Health officials now suspect bacteria in salsa killed diner

The Associated Press
Monday October 30, 2000

Viva Mexico shut down after woman is poisoned 


REDWOOD CITY – Health officials suspect that shigella bacteria-tinged salsa may be to blame for a woman’s death and more than 100 illnesses after patrons of a Mexican food restaurant fell ill. 

San Mateo County shut down Viva Mexico, a popular Mexican food restaurant, earlier this week after Constance Williams-Pennel, 53, died Monday. She had eaten lunch at the restaurant three days earlier and preliminary laboratory reports indicate she died of shigella poisoning, or shigellosis. 

Dozens of other diners were also sickened after eating at Viva Mexico and several had to be hospitalized, county officials said. The Environmental Health Services Division of the San Mateo County Health Services Agency shut the restaurant down less than a half hour into an inspection of the facilities following William-Pennel’s death. 

Investigators discovered buckets of stagnant water used to thaw shrimp, meat and vegetables stored at unsafe temperatures and dirty cutting boards. 

A man who answered the phone at Viva Mexico Saturday said the owners were present but had been advised by their attorney not to comment on the restaurant probe. 

Previous inspections of Viva Mexico resulted in “above average” marks from the county, but the latest shigella outbreak could be the worst ever in California, health officials said. 

Investigators have focused their attention on kitchen workers who failed to wash their hands, tainted cilantro used in the salsa, and un-refrigerated foods as prime sources for the outbreak. 

“If someone had contaminated food with shigella, it was in prime territory to grow,” said Dean Peterson, director of the county’s environmental health services. 

Stanford employee Gene Yep dined at Viva Mexico with his two sons and a daughter the same night as Williams-Pennel. Forty-eight hours later they were all ill. 

“I thought it tasted a little funny,” said Yep’s daughter April. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people infected with the bacteria develop bloody diarrhea, high fever and stomach cramps beginning a day or two after they are exposed. The disease usually subsides in about a week. 

About 18,000 cases of shigellosis are reported in the United States each year. This is the first documented shigella outbreak at a food establishment in San Mateo County.