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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

The Science and Law of Tracking Foodborne Illness – Part 8

Case Study: Salmonella poisoning

In 2003, an Illinois health department received multiple reports that people had become ill after eating at Chili’s Grill & Bar in Vernon Hills, Illinois. Investigators visited the restaurant, and soon learned that its dishwashing machine was broken and corroded; the tube that fed chlorine into the machine was plugged, preventing proper sanitization of dishes. They also found that food was not stored at proper temperatures, and those three employees, plus another manager, had called in sick that day. With evidence growing increasingly clear, investigators instructed employees on hand-washing procedures, and collected stool samples from the employees. They discovered 13 employees who had been allowed to work despite suffering from diarrhea and other symptoms. Under pressure, Chili’s closed the restaurant.

But the problem was only beginning to emerge. People who had eaten at the restaurant recently were instructed to seek medical help if ill, and to report their illnesses to the health department. The health department was flooded with telephone complaints. One customer reported there had been no running water while she had been there for lunch – information that management had not thought necessary to share with investigators.

Eventually, investigators identified over 300 individuals who had been sickened as a result of the outbreak. Of those, 141 customers and 28 employees tested positive for Salmonella, while 105 others were deemed probable cases. The health department concluded that infected employees had contaminated food with Salmonella as a result of poor sanitary practices and improper food handling.

Clearly, this entire outbreak could have been avoided by the most simple and obvious of sanitary practices. The company’s shortcuts turned out to be extremely costly