Update: Bacterial toxin found in food served to sickened Coachella festival shuttle drivers

After an extensive investigation, health officials in Riverside County now say they have determined a possible source of the food-borne illness that sickened more than 100 shuttle drivers during the second weekend of the Coachella music festival.

“Tests conducted on food collected after dozens of employees of a shuttle bus company became ill last month detected a bacterial toxin that can cause the symptoms described by those who became sick,” Shane Reichardt of the Emergency Management Department confirmed to News Channel 3.

Officials say that toxin was found this week by the state health department laboratory and reported as Staphylococcal aureus (Staph) enterotoxin. The toxin “was detected in the food sample collected by a Los Angeles County resident who became ill shortly after eating a dinner catered for employees of a shuttle bus company on April 24.”

“Through collaboration with Environmental Health and the vendor, we have been able to interview hundreds of people who attended the dinner with the idea of ​​determining the circumstances around the meal,” said Kim Saruwatari, director of the Riverside County Public Health Department. “The goal was to identify the specific food or item that caused so many to become ill.”

Investigators say the drivers who did get sick reported that they started feeling symptoms within hours of the meal.

However, “because sampled food items were mixed, health officials have not determined the specific food item that caused the sickness.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), staphylococcal food poisoning results from eating food contaminated with toxins produced by these bacteria. The toxin can cause of a variety of symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea… According to the CDC, the best way to avoid food poisoning by Staph is to prevent perishable food from being held at room temperature for more than two hours.

Riverside County Emergency Management

Riverside County health officials tell News Channel 3 that as part of their probe into the illnesses, they “ended up doing nearly 300 interviews with shuttle company employees.” This includes “those who became ill and those who did not – and identified one person who had become ill and taken some of the food home.”

One of those drivers shared her story with News Channel 3’s Jake Ingrassia after the incident.

Blanca Moreno said she got so sick behind the wheel of her bus, she had to immediately pull over.

“I was driving and I felt like I was gonna throw up,” Moreno said. “As soon I opened the door, I started throwing up.”

Moreno said she had Coachella festival-goers on board her bus after 9 Sunday night when she started feeling sharp pain in her stomach.

“I couldn’t take the pain,” she said. “It was bad.”

Just an hour earlier, she and other drivers ate a catered meal at the Riverside County Fairgrounds in Indio. “It was meatballs and fettuccine pasta, and it had chicken, but the chicken didn’t look too good,” Moreno said. “And then the salad – it didn’t look too good either.”

More: 100+ Coachella shuttle drivers reported being sick from food poisoning

In April, News Channel 3 reported that an Indio commissary kitchen and caterer were part of the county’s investigation into an incident that led to more than 100 Coachella Festival shuttle bus drivers suffering from apparent food poisoning.

The incident sent at least 46 shuttle bus drivers to local hospitals, however, county officials believe the number of people impacted could be higher as there were many drivers from out of the area.

The two facilities have not been identified as being responsible for the illnesses. The investigation into the source of the problem is still underway at this time.

Officials with the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health confirmed to News Channel 3 that the two facilities are Sacher Enterprises, a commissary kitchen, and Croux & Co., a local catering company.

The meals from Sunday night were prepared in the kitchen by the caterer Croux & Co., according to an email from Dottie Ellis-Merki, deputy director for the Dept. of Environmental Health.

“Both Sacher and Croux are permitted by our department. The commissary kitchen was inspected Monday morning (4/25/22) by our staff. No violations were observed. And no food that was served was leftover in the kitchen.” Ellis-Merki tells News Channel 3.

“Both facilities have been very cooperative in the investigation,” Ellis-Merki wrote.

News Channel 3 spoke with representatives from both facilities the day the county identified them.

Croux Koplin, owner, of Croux & Co. said there were multiple catering companies involved in serving food to shuttle drivers. On Sunday night, they provided dinner, coffee, and drinks for about 300 people. They served fettuccine, meatballs, premixed salad, and bread.

Koplin said employees also ate the food, except for the salad, and none of them reported being sick.

Croux & Co.’s most recently routine inspection by the Health Dept. on June 14, 2021, where the company received an “A” grade with a score of 98 out of 100.

Toni Romero of Sacher Enterprises told News Channel 3 they served drivers on Saturday evening. They served carne asada burritos, chicken, and rice. Staff also ate the same food and none of them reported feeling sick.

She says she follows health guidelines carefully. “I know where I am at, I know how we handle food,” Romero said, acknowledging the Health Department can come in at any time.

Romero said this is the first time anything like this has been connected to her kitchen and she is cooperating with the investigation. “In reality, we don’t know at this point,” she said, “there’s no determination as to what happened.”

The Health Dept. did a routine inspection at Satcher Enterprises on January 18, 2022. The company received an “A” grade with a score of 97 out of 100.

Both companies are involved in the investigation as they are connected to the food served on the weekend that the drivers reported being sick, however, neither of the companies has been confirmed to have been at fault for the incident.

The investigation into the apparent food poisoning remains ongoing.

Croux says because of the ongoing investigation his company will not be serving food for drivers during this weekend’s music festival.

Stay with News Channel 3 for continuing updates on the investigation.

Riverside County Health officials still want to hear from people who attended the dinner, whether they became ill or not, and ask them to call 951-358-5107.

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