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Chili's outbreak traced

Ill workers likely cause: Food poisoning at restaurant sickened more than 300

An investigative report on the outbreak of salmonella last summer originating from Chili's Bar and Grill in Vernon Hills concludes that the food poisoning was likely spread from ill employees to customers rather than originating with a source such as tainted or undercooked food.

The report, issued Monday by the Lake County Health Department, echoes comments made by health department officials in the wake of the incident that the spread was likely due to improper handwashing practices and aggravated by the restaurant remaining open for two days with interrupted water service.

"We can't prove it conclusively, but that's what we believe," said Health Department Executive Director Dale Galassie. "This whole unfortunate experience will prove to be a learning experience for our system and has led to some changes nationally as well."

Galassie said Brinker International, the corporate owner of Chili's, has instituted new food handling procedures for the national chain.

More than 300 people who ate at the restaurant between June 23 and July 1 are believed to have been sickened from the disease, which can be spread by people, especially food service workers, who do not properly wash their hands after using the bathroom.

Although statistically, many who became ill had eaten chicken dishes, the report notes that some of the chicken involved had been pre-cooked, that there had been no reports of undercooked chicken and that other restaurants receiving the same chicken shipments apparently had no illness problems.

The report also said an employee of the restaurant, who later tested positive for salmonella, first reported symptoms June 5, well before the outbreak occurred.

Health officials had previously said that the restaurant, in violation of health ordinances, remained open June 26 although hot water service was not available, and on June 27 without any running water during lunchtime hours, raising questions about how employees could have properly washed their hands.

The report acknowledges that as likely being a major factor in the outbreak.

"The investigation revealed environmental factors such as loss of hot water, loss of water, the large number of ill employees at the facility, a general lack of handwashing and dishmachine sanitary failure that may have caused fecal/oral contamination of multiple food items, and contributed to/exacerbated the spread of salmonella," the report states.

It also noted that the health department's "prompt action" in reacting to initial indications of the outbreak deterred secondary outbreaks despite the number of people infected and the fact that some of the employees also worked at other restaurants.

Brinker recently paid the Health Department $32,000 to cover staff time and other expenses related to the outbreak.

Meanwhile, the national law firm Marler Clark is representing more than 60 victims of the outbreak, including two who were hospitalized with severe illness. Marler Clark is receiving local assistance from the Waukegan firm of Salvi, Schostok and Pritchard.

Brinker has declined to comment on the federal litigation.

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