How safe is salsa at your favorite Mexican restaurant?

By Curt Autry - bio | email
Posted by Phil Riggan – email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - How safe is the salsa at your favorite Mexican restaurant? A recent government study suggests salsa is a big contributor to food borne illnesses.

So, with hidden cameras, NBC12 put five local restaurants to the test. And according to one epidemiologist, some of our results were troublesome.

Red ripe, tomatoes, peeled and seeded. Onion; green chiles; jalapenos; a clove of garlic and a touch of cilantro.

Although the recipes may vary, salsa is the staple of Mexican cuisine. But according to the Center for Disease Control, it may also be the most dangerous.  A government study finds salsa is linked to 1 out of every 25 restaurant-associated food borne illnesses.

With my producer, and a hidden camera, we went to five Richmond area Mexican restaurants to collect salsa samples.

We went to Su Casa on West Broad Street, El Toro Loco on Staples Mill, Casa Grande on Midlothian, Mi Hacienda on Midlothian and the Mexico Restaurant across from the Short Pump Towne Center.

We poured salsa into a sterile container under the table and sealed the jar tightly, and mark the sample.

The salsa was then taken to San Air Technologies for analysis. Within a few days, the bacteria cultures began to grow and produce some surprising results. You should expect some level of bacteria in any uncooked food product -- like salsa -- but the differences between the restaurants was staggering.

The best? Mexico restaurant, with a low count of 6,000 CFU's per gram, and a list of bacteria that posed no real surprises. Of the five restaurants, epidemiologist Ed Wong saw only one sample that seemed troublesome:

"The one that has the coli form organisms at the highest concentration. One of them is what, 200,000-300,000? In that setting, in the right host, they have the potential, the most potential to cause infection," Wong said.

That one restaurant? El Toro Loco.

"The bacteria that was in your salsa included strep intermedius, and strep species..."

Here's the laboratory analysis. Remember Mexico restaurant's low bacteria count of 6,000? El Toro Loco's was 329,000, more than 50 times higher, with five different species of bacteria.

The restaurant manager promised to do better.

"I'm glad to find out. And we will try to fix it, whatever we have to do, we'll go back and see what we can do about it," said manager Pech Martinez.

Bacteria counts ranging from 6,000 to almost 330,000, but keep in mind, we all ingest some bacteria every day, and our bodies are equipped to fight it. Eating salsa with a high bacteria count is no guarantee of illness.

"Having the organisms there is worrisome, but again -- does that necessarily lead to infection?  Not necessarily," Wong said.

Dr. Wong also said those at greatest risk from eating bacteria-laden salsa would be the very young, the very old, and people with underlying health issues.

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