Seven people who ate at a southern Orange County restaurant have become ill with the E. coli bacteria since the weekend, three of them seriously enough to be hospitalized, health officials said Monday.
Authorities said the victims ate at the Foothill Ranch Souplantation in the 26000 block of Towne Centre Drive in Lake Forest. Six of them dined there March 23 or 24. The seventh, a restaurant spokeswoman said, is believed to have eaten there March 25.
Health officials said they had not determined the source of the contamination.
An E. coli outbreak in 26 states last year may have sickened as many as 4,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Three people died. The outbreak was traced to spinach grown on a cattle ranch east of Salinas and triggered an unprecedented nationwide recall of the vegetable.
The type of E. coli involved in that outbreak is the same as the one at the Lake Forest restaurant. It is particularly dangerous because it adheres to the intestinal wall and emits a toxic material that can dissolve it, causing bloody diarrhea, extreme cramping and, in severe cases, kidney failure and death.
San Diego-based Souplantation specializes in a soups and salads at 100 restaurants nationwide, including 34 in Southern California.
Its parent company, Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., issued a statement Monday saying that only one restaurant was involved.
“The health and welfare of our guests and employees is always our top priority,” said Ken Keane, president of the company, "... and [we] remain committed to the highest level of quality, cleanliness and service.”
The Lake Forest restaurant remains open.
The E. coli bacteria is contracted by eating undercooked or unwashed foods such as ground beef, lettuce and unpasteurized milk and orange juice, said Dr. Michele Cheung, deputy medical director of epidemiology at the Orange County Health Care Agency. It can also be spread from person to person, she said, if someone has not washed properly or has come into contact with the stool of an infected person.
Although the most common symptom is bloody or severe diarrhea, health officials said, it can also be characterized by a low-grade fever. And although most people recover without treatment in about 10 days, Cheung said, 4% to 10%, especially those under age 5, are subject to a syndrome affecting the blood and kidneys that, in rare cases, is fatal. People can begin to show symptoms as long as 10 days after exposure to the bacteria.
Before the weekend, Cheung said, there had been two cases of E. coli reported this year in Orange County. In 2006, she said, 11 cases were reported.
Cheung said anyone exhibiting symptoms should seek medical attention.
Beyond that, she said, people should cook meat thoroughly, wash fruits and vegetables, clean all items that come into contact with raw meat, and wash their hands after handling raw vegetables, meats and fruits, and after changing diapers or using the bathroom.