June 26, 2008

Lawsuits to be filed after illnesses during ’07 festival

Click to view a collection of health code violations at last year’s Taste.
Click here to view a two-page spreadsheet of Taste of Chicago Violations
Download the press release.

On the eve of the 2008 Taste of Chicago festival, 10 people are expected to file separate lawsuits against one of last year’s vendors after they reportedly became ill with salmonella poisoning, according to the plaintiffs’ attorney Rich Ruohonen.

The lawsuits will be filed today in Cook County District Court against Pars Cove restaurant, Ruohonen said. In 2007, 790 people reported getting sick with the common Heidelberg strain of salmonella after eating a hummus dish served at the Pars Cove booth. By choice, the restaurant will not participate in this year’s event, manager Mike Bambouynai said. At deadline, Pars Cove owner Max Pars and his attorney, Scott Landa, were unavailable for comment.

Mike Wyrick developed food poisoning two days after eating a hummus dish at the Pars Cove booth. He initially experienced abdominal pain and vomiting, which progressed to blood poisoning, and Wyrick was hospitalized.

“When it got to the point where I was going to hospital, I thought that I could die,” Wyrick said. “Just moving around would make me sick.”

Pars Cove’s 2007 inspection records were withheld from The Chicago Reporter because of ongoing litigation, according to a spokesman from the Chicago Department of Public Health. But a Reporter investigation shows that Pars Cove isn’t the only vendor from last year’s event that may have improperly handled food.

The Reporter obtained copies of the Chicago Department of Public Health’s daily inspection reports for the vendors who are returning to this year’s event after participating at last year’s event, which attracted 3.6 million visitors. The Reporter found that in 2007:

  • More than 85 percent of the 67 food vendors had violations during their onsite inspections.
  • Of the 57 vendors with violations, the average number of violations per restaurant was four.
  • Nearly 40 percent of all violations occurred during the first three days of the festival.
  • One restaurant, Star of Siam, was cited for storing an open container of vinegar next to an open container of bleach. Another, La Justicia, was cited for storing enchilada sauce in a container that read “dish soap.”

“People shouldn’t be concerned with eating at the Taste,” said Jennifer Hefferly, spokeswoman for the Illinois Restaurant Association. “Most restaurants are only inspected twice a year. Each booth at the Taste is checked [at least] twice a day.”

The 10 plaintiffs in the lawsuits are among the 191 people who were confirmed to have cases of salmonella traced back to contaminated hummus prepared at the Pars Cove booth, Ruohonen said. The Chicago Department of Public Health found no hazardous conditions at the booth in the days following the initial salmonella complaints, according to a report commissioned by the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and conducted by the city’s public health department. An inspection of the restaurant several days after the culmination of the Taste revealed “critical violations related to failure to maintain proper temperature of a cooler and a potentially hazardous food item being held at an improper temperature,” according to the report. The improper heating and cooling may have allowed the bacteria to survive, Ruohenen said.

The Reporter found that several other vendors had violations for improper temperatures during the course of the 10-day festival.

According to the analysis:

  • Nearly half, or 31, of the 66 booths returning this year had at least one temperature-related food violation.
  • Many restaurants had multiple violations, for a total of 57 temperature-related violations.

Violations ranged in severity. Chicago Department of Public Health guidelines require that cold, perishable foods be kept below 40 degrees and hot items above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. C’est Si Bon received five temperature violations, including one for storing 25 pounds of catfish, 15 pounds of meatballs and 33 pounds of Cajun rice around 100 degrees. Inspectors noted that ice bags were sitting on top of the food and melting into the open food containers. All of those items were voluntarily discarded, according to the report.

To keep the festival manageable, the public health department’s protocol is to correct all violations on the spot, issuing a violation but not shutting the booth down if the problem can be addressed immediately, said Frances Guichard, director of the Food Protection Program for the Chicago Department of Public Health.

“Very seldom do we have issues that cannot be resolved while we’re there doing the inspection,” Guichard said. As a result, repeat offenders–”even those with serious violations on their records–”are almost never closed for business, she said.

To mitigate these dangers, the Department requires each booth to have a food safety manager on duty at all times. These managers complete a three-hour training course on outdoor food safety prior to the festival, and if they are absent during a routine inspection, the booth is shut down until they return, Guichard said.

Ruohonen said that temporary workers, who are hired only for the duration of the event, can present another food safety risk because they have less extensive training than their full-time counterparts. The CDC report states that there were three workers who tested positive for salmonella at Pars Cove and that they were all temporary workers. At least one continued working while sick, according to the report.

“If they’d had a stack of their violations sitting there, I might have thought twice,” Wyrick said. “But seeing as the city doesn’t do that, you don’t have much to go on.”

–”Kimbriell Kelly and Matthew Hendrickson helped research this article.