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There Was a Salmonella El Pollo Loco Outbreak?

Posted in Our Blog,Outbreaks & Recalls,Salmonella on April 15, 2019

Some buzz is circulating in the media that there was a Salmonella El Pollo Outbreak in 2018 that no one ever knew about. Could there have been one? Here’s what little we know about this potential 2018 Salmonella El Pollo Loco Outbreak:

In 2018, the California Department of Public Health is investigated a Salmonella Thompson cluster linked to chicken served at El Pollo Loco restaurant in Modesto, California. We just learned about it. The cluster was identified by pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE). The pattern shown by PFGE has associated this outbreak 5 times between 2012 and 2017 in this area. This PFGE pattern has been most commonly linked with chicken in the past.

The Outbreak?

The first case in the outbreak was identified in February 2018, around 2 cases that matched the PFGE patterns were reported each week since then. Between April 6 and May 4, around 6.5 cases matched PFGE pattern each week.

PFGE is a laboratory technique used by scientists to create a DNA fingerprint for a bacterial isolate. A bacterial isolate is a serotype of the same type of bacteria. The method isolates the DNA fingerprint from ill people, contaminated food and samples from places where the food is produced. PulseNet uses computer software to compare this DNA fingerprint with other samples present in the database. When patterns match, PulseNet team alert different local health departments and labs that use PulseNet about a possible foodborne outbreak.

CDC identified this cluster of Salmonella Thompson outbreak through PFGE and assigned it the code 1806CAJP6-1.


In total, there have been 39 confirmed cases of the outbreak so far. Illnesses ranged from 2 to 79 years old, only 2 cases among them were under 5 years of age. Out of the total cases, 28 (74%) were female. Most of them were local residents from Modesto, California. 35 of these cases were symptomatic. 6 of these cases were hospitalized due to the illness. One of them died due to causes other than just Salmonella infection.

25 interviews were done. Out of the cases that were interviewed, it was found that around 60 percent of them had dined at El Pollo Loco in Modesto, California within 72 hours before the symptoms of the illness started appearing. All those who reported eating at El Pollo Loco also said they had a dish with chicken in it. 11 of those who tested positive were found through urine culture, as opposed to stool culture.

On 25th of May 2018, El Pollo Loco in Modesto, California was investigated. During the inspection, no obvious issues were found by the authorities. Six days after the first investigation, another investigation was done. Samples were collected from 75 places in the restaurant and all the staff were tested for Salmonella too.

The restaurant voluntarily closed on June 1, 2018 for sanitation, slight repairs and staff clearance. One employee tested positive for the same serotype of Salmonella that was associated with the outbreak. A few environmental samples tested positive for Salmonella as well.

We will update this post as more details about this potential outbreak unfold.

Salmonella Outbreaks

Salmonella outbreaks are most commonly associated with meat and poultry, eggs and in recent times, fresh fruits and vegetables too. Salmonella in chicken can be prevented by thorough cooking to the recommended temperature, refrigerating it properly and preventing cross-contamination.

Here are some quick tips to prevent Salmonella

  • Cook meat, poultry and eggs properly. Do not eat or drink foods that have raw or unpasteurized dairy products.
  • If you feel that you have been served undercooked meat, poultry or eggs in a food service establishment, send it back to the kitchen for proper cooking.
  • Wash your hands, clean countertops and utensils when they come in contact with raw meat or poultry.
  • Be extra cautious when you are preparing food for children under 5 years of age, elderly or those who have compromised immune system.
  • Wash hands after you have been in contact with dogs, cats, baby chicks or been to a petting zoo.

Preventative measures at restaurant and cafe:

  • Promote good hygiene practices among your workers. Employees should wash their hands properly. Educate them on why this simple practice is crucial to avoid passing harmful germs to food. Salmonella lives inside the gut of humans and they pass it in their feces. If a worker forgets to wash his hands after going to the washroom, they can transfer the bacteria to food or places they touch in the kitchen. If any employee is feeling sick, they should take a leave. Using gloves or utensils to prevent bare hand contact with food is another way to prevent food contamination.
  • Cooking food thoroughly ensures that all the germs present in meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products and fresh produce are killed. The meat and poultry should reach the proper internal temperature before being served to the customer. All the food service establishments should rely on a calibrated food thermometer to check the food temperature.
  • Regulate and record time/temperature of foods. There are so many people working altogether in a restaurant. Maintain a proper time and temperature monitoring record so that there is no room for food contamination left. This will also improve performance, accountability and transparency in the entire process.
  • Prevent cross-contamination: All the prep areas should be cleaned and sanitized to reduce the risk of bacterial growth on surfaces or spreading to other batches of food. Raw meat, seafood and eggs counter should be kept separate if needed. Keep fresh fruits and vegetables separate from raw meat and poultry.
  • Follow proper storage instructions. Not only will this help in keeping food fresh but will also prevent it from contamination and extend shelf life.
  • Don’t offer high-risk products in your restaurants like dishes made with raw meat, poultry, seafood and unpasteurized dairy.

All food service employees should know about these food safety regulations. Any new employees should be trained too. A study done at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health revealed that financial impact of foodborne outbreak on a restaurant can range between $6000 to $2.1 million, depending on the severity of the outbreak, cause and the amount restaurants have to pay in fines and legal fees. So, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Salmonella symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramps. Incubation period is 8 to 72 hours. Most healthy people will recover on their own within 2 to 7 days. However, diarrhea can last for up to 10 days. Complications can occur in young children, elderly, pregnant women and those with compromised immune system.

By: Pooja Sharma, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)