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Oklahoma Restaurant Remained Open After Confirmation of E. coli Link

Oct 20, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Internal documents reveal that State Health Department officials allowed the Locust Grove Country Cottage restaurant in Oklahoma to remain open temporarily—despite confirming six of eight initial food poisoning victims had eaten its food—in the largest E. coli O111 outbreak in United States history.

Health Department officials admitted last week there is no set ceiling in such cases for closing a restaurant suspected of being the source of an outbreak.  Meanwhile, one person died, 72 were hospitalized, and 241 people fell ill before the outbreak of a rare, but potentially deadly, form of E. coli was finally contained.  “Obviously, with an outbreak this large in scope, there will be lessons learned that we can apply to future outbreak investigations,” Health Department spokeswoman Leslea Bennet-Webb said.

The first illnesses were reported to the Health Department on August 22.  That evening, Health Department officials were sent to northeastern Oklahoma in response to multiple reports of food poisoning.  Email records show that by the next day, health officials determined that three of four sick people interviewed had eaten at the Country Cottage restaurant; by August 24—two days later—it was confirmed that six of eight people who fell ill ate at the Country Cottage.  Despite all this, officials opted to not alert the public nor close Country Cottage, likely allowing many more to eat there and fall ill.  “We do not have enough info at the current time to implicate this establishment as the likely source,” one health official wrote in an email just after noon August 24.  “This may leak out to the media today, though.”

Documents indicate that health officials allowed the owners of Country Cottage to voluntarily close on August 26.  The Health Department first publicly cited the 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; no single food item has been identified as the source, Bennet-Webb said.  The restaurant remains closed.

Country Cottage, which is a buffet-style restaurant in business for over 22 years, has had 88 health department violations since 2004.  The violations 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 in the recent O111 oubreak; 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.

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.

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