December norovirus outbreak caused 290 illnesses among restaurant customers

Almost 300 La Carreta Mexican Restaurant customers who ate at the restaurant in Summerville, South Carolina, in December 2018 became ill with serious gastrointestinal symptoms. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) investigated the outbreak and determined that 290 of the restaurant customers suffered from norovirus.

DHEC closed the restaurant on December 5 after the initial complaints from customers who became ill after eating there. When the health agency inspected the restaurant, they gave it a grade of 90. Inspectors found a temperature violation related to refried beans kept in a walk-in cooler as well as hot food holding temperature violations. Improper temperatures can severely affect food safety, particularly in a restaurant setting.

Some of the restaurant customers had complained of being violently ill for several hours after eating there in early December. Norovirus causes severe symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain. The virus is very contagious and can be spread from consuming contaminated food, coming in contact with an infected person, or touching contaminated surfaces and then touching the mouth without washing hands.

Food and water can easily be contaminated with norovirus, as it only takes a few particles of the airborne virus to do so. The most common cause is restaurant employees who touch food with their bare hands and who may not have washed their hands after using the restroom. In addition, food may become contaminated after being placed or prepared on contaminated surfaces. The food may also have come in contact with the virus in the water used for harvesting or irrigation before it ever reached the restaurant.

In the case of La Carreta Mexican Restaurant, DHEC has not released a specific cause for the norovirus outbreak. An inspection conducted on December 14 found that previous violations had been corrected.  The restaurant then received a grade of 100 and has since reopened for business.