Odessa, located near the Texas-Mexico border, is not a town that lived in obscurity, as many towns of similar size do. Rather, the city already is already known nationwide, but mostly for the fact that Friday Night Lights, a famous book and movie about high school football in Texas, were set there.
In a matter of days, the town has come to be known for something else entirely, as national media outlets took note of a Salmonella outbreak tied to locally popular Ajuua’s Mexican Restaurant.
As details about the outbreak emerged, Odessa quickly lost its association with the book and instead began to evoke images and ideas of widespread food poisoning so severe that it was landing a number of people in the hospital.
Ector County Health Department Investigating Salmonella Outbreak
When Ector County health officials arrived at work this Monday morning, they were not yet aware that the city was in the middle of a Salmonella outbreak, and the bacteria already had two day jump on the public health officials.
Around 4:15 on Friday afternoon, an individual called the Department of Health to inform them that among a group of 13 people that ate at Ajuua’s on June 1st, 10 had fallen ill.
The caller cited stomach cramps, diarrhea, and fever as the most common symptoms of the individuals who fell ill. Gino Solla, Ector County Health Department Director, stated that the maladies listed by the caller represent “typical symptoms that are usually referred to with a foodborne illness.”
Health inspectors began to take a serious look into the claims made by ill individuals on Monday at 9:00 am, the third day after the initial call came in. Solla stated that the Health Department was unable to take action until it received a laboratory-confirmed positive test result.
Positive Test Results Disclosed by Public; Health Department will “Try to be more reactive” in Future Outbreaks
As the inspectors started to look at the claims in earnest, they began to receive additional calls from people who were part of the 13-person outing “saying there was a confirmed case of salmonella” — and they were right. Odessa’s Medical Center Hospital collected a stool sample from one of the sick individuals who sought medical help, and it tested positive for Salmonella.
While the fact that it took two full days to initiate an investigation into the illnesses experienced by 77% of the group of diners looked bad, the fact that the officials then opted not to inform the public of the ongoing outbreak made the situation exponentially worse.
“We definitely could [have released the information],” Solla stated, continuing that “[they would] definitely try to be more reactive” in the future.
In this case, however, instead of proactively informing the public of the outbreak, the likely source, the symptoms of salmonella, and what to do if you begin to experience those symptoms, the department announced the positive salmonella test results and ongoing outbreak only in response to intense questioning by members of the CBS 7 media team.
Trying to Gain Ground on Bacteria: the Department of Health Begins its Response
Once Solla had a positive test from the health department itself in-hand – the director stated that the health department is legally precluded from temporarily closing a restaurant without such a sample – he spoke with Ajuuna’s CEO, Mark Rubio.
After talking to Rubio, the department of health conducted a food inspection at the restaurant, which had by that point been temporarily closed.
The restaurant scored a rating of 87 on the inspection (70 points and below constitutes a “failure”), but was cited for a number of violations, including failure to clean trash out of the grease bin, undated food in the walk-in cooler, commingling different foods – which were also not protected – during production, and failure to supply hand sanitizer at the sinks or bathroom towels in the men’s restroom.
Maggots Around the Kitchen: Ajuua’s Mexican Restaurant Has Been Down this Road Before
This isn’t Ajuua’s first rodeo, either: in 2011, the restaurant failed inspection after investigators found an active maggot infection linked to soiled laundry rags at the establishment. Although ownership of the restaurant has changed hands since that first failure – Rubio purchased the restaurant at the beginning of 2014 – he can still recall the “big hoopla” that the failure and subsequent closure caused.