A salmonella outbreak connected to Moby Dick House of Kabob had increased to 27 cases in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., as of Wednesday morning.
Health officials have said that many of the diners ate hummus as part of their meals at the chain restaurant and the menu item continues to be investigated as a possible cause.
However, the Maryland Department of Health has cleared Moby Dick House of Kabob to start selling hummus again.
Alex Momeni, the director of operations for Moby Dick House of Kabob, wrote in a statement Tuesday that tests Maryland Department of Health tests of the hummus have come back negative for salmonella or any other harmful pathogens. The hummus, he wrote, is produced at a processing plant in Hyattsville.
“It has been determined that there is no evidence of a direct correlation between the hummus produced at this location and the outbreak,” he wrote.
In an email, Maryland Department of Health spokeswoman Maureen Regan wrote that the department’s office of food protection cleared the restaurant chain on Friday to begin making and selling the hummus again. But she added that the investigation into the outbreak remains active.
“MDH has not excluded Moby Dick House of Kabob hummus as the source of this salmonella outbreak,” she wrote.
Representatives from the Maryland Department of Health did not respond to four phone messages that were left since Monday seeking additional information. As of Wednesday morning, 21 confirmed cases of salmonella at Moby Dick House of Kabob had been reported in Maryland, five in Virginia and one in the District of Columbia.
Of the Maryland residents who got sick, five were at Montgomery County locations, which included Bethesda and Germantown, said Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services. All five live in Montgomery County.
The increase in the number of Maryland salmonella cases to 21 was first reported by Fox 5, and confirmed by the Maryland Department of Health.
Alison Reeves, a spokeswoman with the D.C. Department of Health, wrote in an email Tuesday that her agency is investigating one confirmed Moby Dick case there. She wrote that it was not clear whether it was related to the hummus.
Last week, the Maryland Department of Health sent out an advisory that there were nine confirmed cases of salmonella in the state at Moby Dick House of Kabob since Sept. 10, eight of which involved the customer eating hummus. The restaurant suspended the sale of hummus at all of its restaurants in response, as a precautionary measure. The restaurants stayed open.
The outbreak has resulted in a court case in which a Virginia woman says she ate hummus from Moby Dick during a baby shower and got salmonella symptoms, but didn’t specify the location. She is seeking $500,000.
In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Momeni said the hummus can be sold at all 24 Moby Dick restaurants in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. He said it is distributed from a central location in Hyattsville, where it is produced.
“We have to be in compliance with Maryland because our commissary is in Maryland,” he said.
“If our stores were responsible for making their own hummus, it would have been a different story.”
Momeni said the hummus will return to the restaurants over the course of the next two days. He said he could not speak to what the cause of the salmonella outbreak was, or whether it came from one of Moby Dick’s food items.
“That’s something I can’t answer. That would be a question for the department of health,” he said.
Katherine McCombs, the foodborne disease epidemiology program manager with the Virginia Department of Health, said in an interview Tuesday that the investigation there also remains open, but her agency doesn’t object to Maryland allowing Moby Dick to sell the hummus again.
“If they [Maryland] tell us, ‘Yes, we’ve done this and they’re going to start selling hummus again,’ that’s fine with us,” she said.
McCombs said Virginia officials are still looking at hummus as something that “seems very likely as something to have caused illness.”
“Because everything is mixed together [in hummus], if part of it is contaminated, the bacteria can spread throughout the product,” she said.
McCombs said often in cases of food contamination around the country, once the source of the problem is identified and problems are fixed, the product can be served again.
“That happens all the time with outbreaks. That is definitely how these things with food production happen. The outbreak is identified, the problem is fixed, and they can resume production,” she said.
McCombs urged anyone with salmonella symptoms who has eaten at the restaurant chain to report their illness to their state health department if they haven’t already.
McCombs previously said that a few people who reported becoming sick after eating at Moby Dick didn’t eat the hummus.
Momeni said he hadn’t heard that.
“That statement is completely news to me,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.email@example.com