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Major E. coli outbreak ‘could have been deadly’

Tom Wall06/05/2015 - 13:00

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Flicks caused the outbreak
Flicks caused the outbreak

A Belfast restaurant has been fined just over £100,000 for causing the largest ever E. coli outbreak in Northern Ireland.

The outbreak at the Flicks Restaurant in 2012 made at least 141 people ill, with 19 people admitted to hospital.

The owner, Moviehouse Cinemas (Yorkgate) Ltd, accepted it failed to ensure that cooked and ready-to-eat food was protected at all stages of production, processing and distribution against contamination with E. coli.

The firm pleaded to 11 food hygiene offences at Belfast Crown court and fined £110,000 last week. Belfast council was awarded costs of £5,000.

Judge Kerr said Moviehouse Cinemas were ‘highly culpable’ as the restaurant had failed to adequately address issues highlighted by EHOs during inspections.

The Public Health Agency’s report into the outbreak, which was published after sentencing, said there was some evidence that chopped parsley was a likely vehicle for the spread of E. coli.

It also noted a member of staff at the restaurant was suffering from a severe bout of diarrhoea during the outbreak. There was ‘statistically significant association’ between meals garnished by the staff member and E. coli cases.

It added poor practices within the restaurant contributed to the spread of the E. coli.

Belfast Council said it was ‘extremely fortunate that no lives were lost’ in the outbreak as E. coli was ‘highly infectious’ and ‘can prove deadly’.

Damian Connolly, Belfast’s environmental health manager, said the scale of this outbreak was unprecedented.

‘The sentencing concludes a complex investigation by council staff who worked tirelessly in the early days of the investigation. We welcome the significant fine imposed which reflects the seriousness of this case and highlights the importance of good food safety management and the dangerous consequences when there are failures.’

Helen Morrissey, senior EHO at the council, told EHN that the contribution of EHOs was ‘fundamental’ in the early stages.

‘We tracked down all the cases and contacts to ensure there was no secondary outbreak,' she said. ‘But the key measure that limited the spread of the outbreak was the voluntary closure of the premises. We also publicised it as soon as there was a link to Flicks, so that anybody who had eaten there with symptoms could seek treatment.’

She said Flicks failed to follow advice given by EHOs during inspections prior to the outbreak.

‘The restaurant failed to follow advice that was issued on a repeated basis and when they did do something it was purely on a reactive basis. There was no proactive approach,’ she said.

She claimed ‘nobody took responsibility’ at the restaurant and pointed out there had been problems with hand washing facilities for staff.

‘They relied on staff that were employed through an employment agency. There was no verification of training. There was no ownership of their HACCP – it was a tick box exercise,’ she said.

‘There was repeated issues with the washing facilities, which contributed significantly. On many occasions, when officers visited, there was no soap or towels in the wash-hand basins. There were always facilities in the premises but they weren’t actually in the kitchens.’

The first four cases linked to Flicks emerged in August in 2012. EHOs inspected and the restaurant made a number of improvements to its hygiene management system.

But four more people, who had eaten at Flicks, fell ill in October. A multiagency investigation identified 141 E. coli cases linked to the restaurant. The restaurant closed later that month following advice from EHOs. It has still not reopened.

Ms Morrissey explained that EHOs did not close the premises immediately because they did not become aware of any further cases until October.

‘We did all we felt was appropriate in August. We investigated those four cases as fully as we could. Three had eaten the same food, the burger, on the same day. We investigated the butcher that had supplied that burger and right through the chain.’

‘There were no other cases. It was a surveillance operation. As soon as we got the next one, that was when we started to think about closure.’

‘The E. coli strain in October did not arise from the strain in August. Although there was a common ancestor some way back in the genetics.’

Michael McAdam, the owner of Flicks Restaurant, said: 'I would like to take this opportunity to say how deeply sorry I am to anyone who fell ill as a result of eating at Flicks Restaurant. I am personally devastated that any business of mine caused people to become ill.'

'The company fully accepts the decision of the court. We have always taken public health and safety very seriously and have implemented stringent and additional new checks and balances and have improved training across the company.'

'Flicks Restaurant was managed and staffed separately from any of out other businesses; all of our sites currently have the best possible 5 star rating.'

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