SANTA ANA A Santa Ana bakery linked to a holiday cake that sent at least 12 people to area hospitals with food poisoning has a history of health violations.
County health inspectors cited Cholula’s Bakery 32 times over the past two years for such violations as improper hand-washing, unsanitary equipment and improper holding temperatures. Though these types of violations are common, an Orange County Health Care Agency official said the bakery had a pattern of failing to come into compliance.
Still, it appeared the symptoms that the sick patients showed were not related to food temperature or hand-washing issues, said Denise Fennessy, director of the agency’s environmental health division.
At least a dozen people were treated at hospitals Tuesday and Wednesday in what county health officials described as food poisoning linked to holiday cakes made at the bakery.
In all, health officials said more than 30 people are believed to have taken ill, most complaining of heart palpitations, numbness and hallucinatory thoughts. None was believed to be hospitalized as of late Wednesday.
The bakery was ordered closed Wednesday by the Orange County Health Care Agency because of the outbreak. The bakery’s permit was later suspended when health officials found traces of a cockroach infestation during an inspection, said Deanne Thompson, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Thompson said it is unknown whether the cockroach infestation contributed to the tainted bread.
Health officials were continuing their investigation Thursday. Fennessy said they have nailed down an ingredient list for the cake, but are still trying to pinpoint what pathogens to test for. They’re also looking at the bakery’s typical food preperation and production processes, as well as possible cross-contimination.
“We’re looking at all of the information,” she said, adding that the owners of the business have been helpful.
Health officials urged people not to eat any rosca de reyes, or three kings cake. The cakes were distributed Monday and Tuesday to nine stores in Orange County and one in Long Beach.
The cake traditionally is eaten on Jan. 6 to celebrate the Latin American holiday Three Kings Day, honoring the arrival of the three Wise Men. Made with sweet bread, candied fruits and a small baby Jesus figurine inside, rosca is popular in many areas of Orange County.
The connection of people falling ill and consumption of the cake was made Tuesday by Santa Ana police, after officials at three Orange County hospitals contacted the agency regarding a rash of food poisoning-type illnesses.
Health officials said Wednesday they didn’t know what, specifically, caused the illnesses and they’ll continue to investigate. Santa Ana Police detectives said the incident did not appear to be criminal.
Authorities initially believed about 20 people had been sickened by the cake, but that number grew as reports came in from area hospitals.
On Wednesday, one man, two teens and a 5-year-old from Santa Ana told Orange County Fire Authority paramedics they called 911 after eating the cake around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday. They said they were anxious, had rapid heartbeats and felt under the influence of drugs.
They were taken to Western Medical Center in moderate condition, OCFA Capt. Steve Concialdi said.
Another Santa Ana man was taken to the hospital around 9 a.m. Wednesday, complaining of similar symptoms. He said he also ate the celebratory cake.
Jorge Gonzalez, 29, of Downey said he left his loan officer job in Orange on Tuesday night and stopped at Cholula’s Bakery on his way home to grab a rosca de reyes.
Gonzalez, his 31-year-old wife, his 48-year-old stepfather and his 52-year-old mother, as well as his sister and her boyfriend, ate the cake between 7:30 and 8 p.m., and within a couple of hours, they started to feel sick.
“It was an overwhelming tiredness, and then it kind of felt like I was really, really drugged out,” Gonzalez said.
Everyone in the family felt the same symptoms of increased heart rate, anxiety, jitters and dry mouth, Gonzalez said, adding that he was grateful his 5-year-old son did not eat any of the cake.
“I’ve been drunk before, and even in my worst drunkenness, I never felt that out of it,” Gonzalez said. “It was terrible. I had to try and keep it cool; I didn’t want my kid to get scared.”
The family was taken by ambulance to Downey Regional Medical Center, where Gonzalez said he asked for blood tests because he was worried he may have been drugged. Doctors told him no narcotics were found in the tests.
“They said it was most likely food poisoning,” Gonzalez said. “We were taken aback because we didn’t have the common symptoms like vomiting.”
Santa Ana resident Ireri Hinojosa went to Cholula’s on Wednesday with rosca in hand to tell the bakery’s owner that she’d been made sick by the bread. She said she’d been discharged from a hospital Tuesday night after experiencing symptoms described by others.
Hinojosa said about an hour after eating the bread, midday Tuesday, she started feeling ill, saying she couldn’t tell if she was awake or dreaming.
She lay in bed, overwhelmed with exhaustion, but she couldn’t sleep, constantly opening and closing her eyes. She also was worried, she said, because she was supposed to pick up her son from school.
“I started panicking,” Hinojosa said, “I started pinching myself.”
Despite the side effects, Hinojosa got in her car and drove to pick up her son. Then her vision blurred and she considered stopping the car and asking for help, but continued in order to get her son. At the school, Hinojosa asked for help. She was feeling chest pains and began twitching.
Hinojosa said she was grateful she ate the bread before her children did, preventing them from experiencing the same symptoms.
“Right now, I’m obviously mad. But I would be furious if my kids experienced what I did.”