Going public: Inspectors fail to reveal Salmonella outbreak at popular Calif. deli

A popular LA-area restaurant may have left nearly two dozen people with salmonella poisoning over a four-month period — and health officials failed to warn the public of the danger, an NBC4 I-Team investigation has uncovered.

brent's.deli.reubenBrent’s Deli in Westlake Village, a popular family-owned restaurant dubbed by Zagat as “the Cadillac of delis,” was the suspected source of the poisonings, according to Ventura County records obtained by the I-Team. Some victims reported eating Brent’s famous corned beef sandwiches, some ate pastrami, and others believe it was salads or soups that sickened them.

“It felt like someone reached in and was tearing out my stomach,” said J.D. Leadam of Simi Valley, 25, who said he became ill two days after eating a roast beef sandwich at Brent’s in Westlake in August. He said the nausea, body aches and diarrhea were so bad that his doctor thought he might have contracted Ebola.

Days later, tests confirmed it was salmonella.

State and Ventura County health officials began learning about salmonella cases from Brent’s customers months before Leadam ate at the restaurant, but both agencies failed to inform the public about the growing outbreak.

“I wouldn’t have eaten there if the county had warned the public,” Leadam told NBC4. “I really don’t think the health department was looking out for the public.”

Records from the state health department show the first Brent’s customer became sick with salmonella symptoms in late April, with more cases reported in May, June, July and August. In total, 21 cases of salmonella were associated with the 2014 outbreak, including two Brent’s employees, according to state records.

“We generally don’t notify the public when we’re in the midst of an investigation,” said William Stratton, director of Ventura County Environmental Health, which investigated the Brent’s outbreak.

But county health departments in Los Angeles and San Francisco have alerted the public to food poisoning outbreaks within days of learning of the first cases, so that customers who experience symptoms can get proper medical care.

Bill  Marler said, “They clearly had an obligation to tell the public, from a moral and a public health perspective. This outbreak was an accident waiting to happen,” referring to Brent’s inspection history.

Since 2007, county officials have repeatedly cited Brent’s in Westlake for major health code violations — such as keeping food at unsafe temperatures and employees not properly washing their hands, both of which can spread bacteria to food.

The I-Team also found other Brent’s Westlake customers reported contracting Salmonella in 2007, 2010 and 2013 — well before the 2014 outbreak.

Ventura County health officials say in hindsight, they could have made a public statement warning the public about the outbreak.

“Is issuing a news release or notifying the public one of those things we could have done? Perhaps it is,” Stratton said. “That’s something we’re going to be evaluating.”

NBC4 spoke by phone with one of the owners of Brent’s in Westlake, Marc Hernandez, who says his restaurant is now safe to eat at.

Popular Calif. deli dealing with aftermath of Salmonella cases

As of Feb. 3, Brent’s Deli on Townsgate Road had a clean bill of health, having passed a Ventura County Environmental Health Department inspection with no violations noted.

brent's.deli.reuben“First and foremost, it is completely safe to dine at Brent’s Deli,” said restaurant owner Marc Hernandez in written correspondence to the Acorn.

But that wasn’t the case last summer, says Stephanie Wehr of Oxnard who ate lunch at Brent’s with her family on Aug. 2 and filed a lawsuit against the restaurant on Jan. 22.

Wehr al- leges Brent’s was negligent in the way it handled food and sanitation and, as a result, she got salmonella poisoning that put her in the hospital.

Wehr’s attorney, Trevor Quirk, said his client, who is a nurse practitioner at UCLA’s Ronald Reagan Medical Center, is hoping for accountability and to raise awareness through the suit.

“It’s sad because it’s a local deli,” Quirk said. “We’re not here trying to hurt businesses, but they didn’t do the right thing and got caught with their hand in the cookie jar and said they weren’t trying to take cookies.”

Citing a state salmonella investigation and county environmental health department inspection reports from July that called attention to the issue, the suit claims “Brent’s . . . knew or should have known the premises . . . was contaminated with salmonella.”

Should I stay or should I go? California deli being sued over Salmonella outbreak

A lawsuit was filed this week on behalf of an Oxnard woman alleging she and at least seven others contracted Salmonella poisoning after eating last year at Brent’s Deli in Thousand Oaks.

The suit, filed Monday in Ventura County Superior Court, indicates as many as 21 people might have been victims of the outbreak, including two employees of Brent’s. Yet Ventura County and state health officials never issued a public warning.

Trevor Quirk, a Ventura attorney representing the woman, Stephanie Wehr, said the owners of Brent’s knew there was a problem with Salmonella contamination at the restaurant when his client ate there Aug. 2.

“They had numerous chances to deal with the problem but they failed to do so,” Quirk said.

Marc Hernandez, a managing partner with Brent’s, would not comment on the lawsuit, saying he had yet to see it. But he said “the health and safety of our customers and employees is of the absolute importance.”

“Our focus has always been customer satisfaction and providing a high-quality experience to the thousands of loyal customers who visit our restaurants,” he said in an email.

Going public: The California Salmonella outbreak no one knew about

Laurel Maloy of Food Online writes that state and local public health officials have a responsibility to inform the public. In this particular incident… it didn’t happen

brent's.deliDuring the summer of 2014, 21 people fell ill after eating at Brent’s Deli in Westlake Village, CA. However, no one, except the people who suffered, the public health officials, and the owners of the deli were ever made aware of the outbreak.

The outbreak first came to light when seven people living in Ventura and Los Angeles counties were identified as being infected with a somewhat uncommon genetic strain of Salmonella Montevideo. Patient interviews turned the attention to Brent’s Deli. Eventually 19 patients were diagnosed with S. Montevidea (JIXX01.0645), and another two diagnosed with JIXX01.1565, a clonal offshoot of the outbreak strain. The strains were positively identified through the use of pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) performed by the California Department of Public Health’s (CDPH) Microbial Disease Laboratory (MDL). Two of the infected patients were employees of the deli. And still, the outbreak was kept under wraps, a remarkable feat in and of itself when you consider the speed with which information normally travels today.  If just one ill person had posted about it via social media, this outbreak would not have gone unnoticed.

According to Bill Marler’s blog, he was notified by Trevor Quirk, a California attorney, who was retained by one of the outbreak victims.

The onset of illnesses occurred on April 30, 2014, with illnesses from this same outbreak being identified as late as August 16, 2014. The largest numbers of patients were reported in June and August, with eight patients requiring hospitalization. What stands out is that though the onset of illness can be tracked back to April, with a significant cluster in June, it wasn’t until mid-July that the MDL raised the level of awareness. Apparently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was never brought into the loop.

brent's.deli.reubenOn July 9 the Environmental Health (EH) staff of Ventura County performed an on-site inspection at the Deli. During the inspection, numerous violations — including sanitation, storage, and cooling problems — were discovered. The manager was directed by EH to immediately take action to correct the violations. A follow-up inspection occurred on July 22, with major violations again observed and annotated.

Though it may seem surprising that this outbreak was not elevated to warrant at least a local news report, no laws were broken. Unless an outbreak involves a large number of people or affects people in many states, Federal agencies, such as the CDC,  may or may not be called in. The question then, is: “How many people constitutes a large number?” It is also common for a state health department to work with the state department of agriculture when more than one city or county is involved.  That did not happen, though two counties, Los Angeles and Ventura, saw patients.

The CDC defines a foodborne-disease outbreak (FBDO) as “an incident in which two or more persons experience a similar illness resulting from the ingestion of a common food.” If you look at the timeline, one case was identified on April 27, another on May 18, one on June 1 and then two on June 8. The largest number of confirmed cases, three, happened on June 29, but no action was taken until July 18.

Consider this — what if the unsanitary conditions at Brent’s Deli was discovered before the outbreak? These conditions evidently existed, but went undiscovered, for an extended period of time. An unscheduled short visit from EH would have led to a more thorough inspection.  What if,  after the first two cases, someone had thought to warn the public or to immediately question the patients on where they had eaten? What if the first inspection at Brent’s Deli had been conducted in early June, rather than in late July?  There are any number of solutions that could have been implemented to prevent illnesses.

Anyone in the food-processing industry — from farms providing processors with raw products to the delivery person that supplies corned beef to the local deli — has a moral responsibility to report. The industry can, to a great extent, police itself. It simply takes a commitment to be aware and to get involved to prevent the blatant conditions that cause foodborne illnesses, hospitalizations, and death.