A popular LA-area restaurant may have left nearly two dozen people with salmonella poisoning over a four-month period — and health officials failed to warn the public of the danger, an NBC4 I-Team investigation has uncovered.
Brent’s Deli in Westlake Village, a popular family-owned restaurant dubbed by Zagat as "the Cadillac of delis," was the suspected source of the poisonings, according to Ventura County records obtained by the I-Team. Some victims reported eating Brent’s famous corned beef sandwiches, some ate pastrami, and others believe it was salads or soups that sickened them.
"It felt like someone reached in and was tearing out my stomach," said J.D. Leadam of Simi Valley, 25, who said he became ill two days after eating a roast beef sandwich at Brent’s in Westlake in August. He said the nausea, body aches and diarrhea were so bad that his doctor thought he might have contracted Ebola.
Days later, tests confirmed it was salmonella.
Salmonella symptoms include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. Severe cases can be deadly.
Eight patients traced back to the deli outbreak were hospitalized. One missed six weeks of work while recovering, and another continues to suffer symptoms eight months later.
State and Ventura County health officials began learning about salmonella cases from Brent’s customers months before Leadam ate at the restaurant, but both agencies failed to inform the public about the growing outbreak.
"I wouldn’t have eaten there if the county had warned the public," Leadam told NBC4. "I really don’t think the health department was looking out for the public."
Records from the state health department show the first Brent’s customer became sick with salmonella symptoms in late April, with more cases reported in May, June, July and August. In total, 21 cases of salmonella were associated with the 2014 outbreak, including two Brent’s employees, according to state records.
"We generally don’t notify the public when we’re in the midst of an investigation," said William Stratton, director of Ventura County Environmental Health, which investigated the Brent’s outbreak.
But county health departments in Los Angeles and San Francisco have alerted the public to food poisoning outbreaks within days of learning of the first cases, so that customers who experience symptoms can get proper medical care.
Nationally known food safety attorney Bill Marler is now representing several Brent’s customers. Marler has won multimillion dollar settlements in major food poisoning cases such as the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli case which sickened 700 people.
He said county officials failed to fulfill their responsibilities.
"They clearly had an obligation to tell the public, from a moral and a public health perspective," Marler told NBC4. "This outbreak was an accident waiting to happen," Marler added, referring to Brent’s inspection history.
Since 2007, county officials have repeatedly cited Brent’s in Westlake for major health code violations — such as keeping food at unsafe temperatures and employees not properly washing their hands, both of which can spread bacteria to food.
The I-Team also found other Brent’s Westlake customers reported contracting Salmonella in 2007, 2010 and 2013 — well before the 2014 outbreak.
"I would have never gone there," said Tim Gagnon of Ventura, who took his family to Brent’s in July. He says his 13-year-old daughter, Hailey, ordered a corned beef sandwich and was hospitalized with Salmonella poisoning.
Gagnon said it was one of the most frightening moments he’s had as a father.
"It feels like you might lose the person you love," Gagnon said.
When questioned by the I-Team, Ventura County health officials say in hindsight, they could have made a public statement warning the public about the outbreak.
"Is issuing a news release or notifying the public one of those things we could have done? Perhaps it is," Stratton said. "That’s something we’re going to be evaluating."
NBC4 spoke by phone with one of the owners of Brent’s in Westlake, Marc Hernandez, who says his restaurant is now safe to eat at.
Hernandez declined to comment on camera, but says after learning of the outbreak, last August he voluntarily closed for a day, sanitized the entire restaurant, and has hired a third-party company to improve overall food safety.
"We’re constantly trying to improve," Hernandez said.