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Wednesday, August 15, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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300 detainees ill; tainted food suspected

Seattle Times staff reporter

About 300 immigrants being held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma spent the early part of this week recovering from suspected food poisoning.

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department officials said they were contacted Saturday night after about 180 detainees were treated for diarrhea, nausea and vomiting at the detention-center clinic.

They had been served three meals that day that included hamburger-potato casserole for lunch and beef sausage and coleslaw for dinner.

Most began showing symptoms late Saturday, Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said, adding that detention-center staff, who sometimes eat there, also got ill.

Joby Winans, public health-information officer, said Tacoma-Pierce County health officials were at the detention center Sunday, Monday and again Tuesday to try to determine what made so many people sick.

"It's a scientific mystery at this point," Winans said. "The good news is that no one was seriously ill. They were uncomfortable, yes, but not seriously ill."

Viki Sandote said her brother-in-law, Jose Ojeda Esquivel, who has been in detention since Aug. 1, called her Sunday night to say that everyone in his unit had become ill.

"He said there were a lot of people who were vomiting and had diarrhea and couldn't sleep," she said. "Someone even passed out from dizziness."

Dankers said that by Tuesday most people appeared to have recovered.

The facility must adhere to strict national standards for food preparation, and a licensed, trained chef oversees the preparations.

"We serve 1,000 people three hot meals a day," Dankers said.

The Department of Homeland Security contracts with The GEO Group, a national detention-management company, to run the detention center, which opened in April 2004.

It primarily houses immigrants from Washington, Oregon and Alaska facing deportation, although more recently it also has held people brought in from elsewhere.

Health officials have been at the center all week looking at how food is prepared and interviewing those who got sick about what they ate and making comparisons to those who didn't become ill.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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