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Oklahoma Restaurant Linked to Historic E. coli Outbreak is Sued

Mar 31, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP What is believed to be the first such lawsuit has been filed in connection with the historic outbreak of the rare E. coli O111 strain that originated at the Country Cottage restaurant in Locust Grove, Oklahoma, reports the Associated Press (AP).  Jim and Donna Crafton filed the lawsuit against the Country Cottage.  The couple said they dined at Country Cottage on August 25 and that Donna “suffered severe physical harm and extreme mental suffering from eating the food, reported the AP.

The outbreak was the largest in history of E. coli strain O111 and resulted in the death of one man, 314 illness, and scores of hospitalizations.

Country Cottage, which is a buffet-style restaurant in business for over 22 years, has had 88 health department violations since 2004 that range from improper food storage to improper food temperatures.  Cross contamination violations occurred in 2005 and 2006, according to health department reports.  This type of contamination can take place when, for instance, a meat product is placed near a product such as eggs.  Cross contamination was originally suspected; however, an OSDH (Oklahoma State Department of Health) official said that because investigators were never able to identify a specific food source, they believe a staff member who handled many foods at the restaurant might have been infected and spread the contamination.  The origin of the outbreak remains unknown, said the AP.

During an August 23 surprise inspection, nine health code violations were identified.  Despite this, Country Cottage remained open on August 24, the day the one related death occurred.  Also, internal documents revealed that State Health Department officials allowed Country Cottage to remain open temporarily—despite confirming six of eight initial food poisoning victims had eaten its food.

The Health Department first publicly cited Country Cottage as a possible link in the outbreak on August 25, saying in a release that “a large number of persons who became ill” had eaten there.  The investigation ultimately revealed that every person who became ill in the E. coli O111 outbreak had eaten food prepared by Country Cottage.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia describes “shiga-producing” (shiga is a type of toxin) E. coli infections—such as strain O111—as diarrheagenic bacteria termed “enterohemorrhagic E. coli” that are similar in path to that of the better known E. coli O157:H7.  This means that these serious and sometimes deadly infections can cause symptoms that range from mild diarrhea to more profound watery or bloody diarrhea with severe abdominal cramping.  E. coli O111 can also result in the very serious hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).  In the United States annually, these serious types of E. coli outbreaks sicken approximately 110,000 people and cause about 90 deaths, says the CDC.

Country Cottage closed for some time at the height of the outbreak.  The restaurant had to take a variety of steps in order to be allowed to reopen, such as participating in food safety classes, said Channel 8 in an earlier report.  The restaurant also had to replace all of its hand washing sinks and was required to disconnect a water well.  The health department found bacteria in that well during its investigation, reported Channel 8.

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