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Kansas restaurant illnesses investigated as possible crimes

LENEXA Kan. Amid an unconfirmed report that salsa may have been tainted with pesticide, Kansas state officials said Sunday that a criminal investigation has begun related to two incidences in August in which guests of the Mi Ranchito restaurant here suddenly fell ill while dining.

Initial speculation about the cause of the outbreaks, which happened about two weeks apart and sickened about 20 guests, centered on improperly installed water lines that created toxic carbonic acid by permitting carbonated water to contact copper plumbing. The last such incident occurred Aug. 30 and resulted in the restaurant being closed until late last month, when state officials gave the OK for it to reopen.

However, an Oct. 1 report in The Kansas City Star, citing television station KSHB, said some of the sickened patrons said public health officials had told them that salsa made daily at the restaurant had been tainted with methomyl, a pesticide that can quickly sicken people. The report further quoted Mi Ranchito co-owner Rulber Dela Torre as saying that he had not been told by health officials that poisoning was the cause of the outbreaks and added, “If this did happen, it was a deliberate act by somebody who wants to hurt my business.”

Kansas Department of Agriculture public information officer Lisa Taylor said Sunday she could not confirm or deny that tainted salsa was involved in the Mi Ranchito case. She added, however, “I can say that it is under criminal investigation.”

Taylor said the matter was now being handled by the U.S. attorney’s office in Wichita and the Johnson County district attorney’s office in Olathe, Kan. The U.S. attorney's office would neither confirm nor deny that a federal investigation had been launched in the Mi Ranchito case.

An e-mail to Dela Torre’s company seeking comment also was not answered by press time.

Rulber Dela Torre and his brother, Armando Dela Torre, own Mi Ranchito LLC of Lenexa, which operates six restaurants.

Contact Alan J. Liddle at [email protected].

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