Sausage at Firefly tests positive for salmonella; number of sick now at 294

Firefly Tapas Kitchen & Bar on Paradise Road sits closed Tuesday, April 30, 2013.

Health officials say cooked chorizo collected from the Firefly Tapas Kitchen & Bar on Paradise Road has tested positive for salmonella.

The discovery comes after a salmonella outbreak last month that sickened at least 294 people from 27 states and two foreign countries who ate at the popular off-Strip restaurant, according to a report released by the Southern Nevada Health District today.

Health officials say they can’t be certain whether negligence among Firefly staff was the definitive cause of the salmonella outbreak, but it’s likely.

“[There is] a small possibility that raw chorizo was contaminated prior to arriving at Firefly,” the report says. “It is likely that the outbreak was due to local cross-contamination in the restaurant’s kitchen and not from a contaminated commercial food.”

The chorizo arrived at the restaurant raw and was subsequently cooked by Firefly’s restaurant staff, the report says. All chorizo items collected by the Health District were already cooked.

Linh Nguyen, the epidemiologist who wrote the report, said the molecular fingerprint of the salmonella strain found in the food has not been found anywhere else in the country.

“It’s a hint that it’s not a widely distributed product,” Nguyen said.

A scientist with more than a decade of experience in the field of epidemiology, Nguyen said the outbreak at Firefly was “the biggest I’ve ever seen. We had eight different groups call after eating there on the same night; it’s a big deal when two groups call.”

In a statement, Firefly owner John Simmons thanked the Health District for its thorough review.

"From day one, our concern has always been doing everything we could for those affected and doing everything we could to use this time to make Firefly the safest place to eat in southern Nevada," he said. " While we are anxious to have the final report and a better idea of what may have happened, for me, it was never about the source — it was about making sure I did everything in my power to prevent this from happening again."

Simmons said Firefly has hired a food-safety consultant to "double and triple check our methods and we’ll operate in the mode of continuous improvement, constantly upgrading our practices with new technology, new methods, and additional training."

Health officials say the number of ill from the outbreak could continue to grow.

“It is possible that the number of cases will change slightly over the next weeks as the last laboratory results arrive that either identify new confirmed cases, or eliminate probable cases from our count...” the report says. “The rate of cases being reported to the SNHD has declined significantly with no evidence of any disease transmission after the closure of the restaurant on April 26, 2013.”

Health District inspectors began investigating a possible salmonella outbreak April 26 when eight people who had eaten at Firefly reported severe stomach sicknesses. Days later, the number jumped to 39 then subsequently ballooned to 86 to 200 to 294.

The Health District forced Firefly to close after discovering 44 health code violations, three more than the minimum needed to close a restaurant.

Inspectors said kitchen employees handled food with bare, unwashed hands and stored ingredients, including meat, at improper temperatures. They also found a thermometer that read 100 degrees, despite being submerged in ice water.

All of the sickened people had eaten at the Firefly between April 21 and 24.

Of 83 stool samples collected from ill Clark County residents who dined at the restaurant, 61 tested positive for salmonella. The results of the rest are pending or turned up negative.

Inspectors sent 19 food samples collected from the Firefly on April 26 to a lab for testing.

Scientists initially suspected the Salmonella came from an egg-based aioli sauce, but tests proved the aioli sauce was not connected to the illnesses.