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Salmonella shuts local eatery

State Health Department officials said today that they are trying to determine the source of bacteria that has caused at least nine people to become ill with salmonella after eating at Cafe Santa Fe in Benton.

Owner Herb Flores, who voluntarily closed the restaurant on Sunday, said he was shocked when he found out the news from the Health Department. "This hit me sideways. I don't where it came from," he told the Courier.

Flores said his main concern "is for the people who say they ate at our store to get the proper medical care and get better."

The restaurant will reopen after approval from the state Health Department to assure that no possible sources of contamination exist, a department spokesman said.

"Once the department releases us, we'll be the safest restaurant in Saline County," Flores said. "We have a full commitment to our patrons to be the safest restaurant in town."

Flores told one source, "We're more concerned about our customers and anybody who ate there than we are about reopening our doors."

The Health Department said in a news release that nine cases of the common illness have been confirmed and that a link was established with Cafe Santa Fe, which is located at 17324 Interstate 30.

The department does not believe that any other area restaurants are affected, a spokesman said.

Dr. Joe Bates, deputy director of the Health Department, said the problem surfaced around 6 p.m. Friday when a Benton physician called the Health Department.

Bates said the link with Cafe Santa Fe was established with the help of information provided by the doctor through her patients.

Bates said anyone who ate at the restaurant in the seven days up to and including Friday could have been exposed to salmonella, which can cause diarrhea, cramping, fever, nausea, vomiting and headache. Some people exposed to the bacteria may have mild or no symptoms, Bates said, but some infections can be serious, especially in infants and elderly people.

The symptoms usually appear 12 to 36 hours after exposure, Bates aid. Officials said anyone who has eaten at Cafe Santa Fe and is experiencing symptoms should see a physician.

Raymond Heaggans, a Health Department environmental health specialist in food safety, said Sunday that no link has been established with particular food eaten at the restaurant. "Right now, we just have people with symptoms," Heaggans said.

Health Department officials investigated the restaurant before it voluntarily closed on Sunday.

Heaggans said department officials do not know the initial force of the bacteria. Cultures of all the employees were taken to help determine that, he said.

Heaggans said he is uncertain how long the restaurant will be closed.

"If the cultures come back clear, we don't want to have them closed any longer than they have to," Heaggans said.

Before reopening, Heaggans said, employees will undergo basic training on the proper way to handle food and prevent contamination. "We'll recommend managers take our certification training," he said.

"This (salmonella) happens all the time" at restaurants, Heaggans said.

The spread of the bacteria can be caused from something as small as a sick employee coming to work and not following the proper methods to prevent food contamination, Heaggans said.

Flores said he is working with the Department of Health to determine the source. He said the bacteria may have come from a food source such as chicken. He added that he is talking with his 45 employees to possibly determine the source.

Conditions of the people who were contaminated with the bacteria is unknown by department officials, Heaggans said.

"It depends on your health" before being contaminated, he said. "You can be sick as a dog" or not get sick at all.

In Arkansas, 837 cases of salmonellosis were reported in 2003 to the Health Department, officials said.

Cafe Santa Fe, which features Southwest-style Mexican food, opened about six years ago and serves about 500 customers daily, Flores said. The eatery has won awards in the Benton Courier's "Best of the Best" contest four years in a row, he noted.

Flores said his restaurant has an "impeccable" health and safety record.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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