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Diner sues eatery over salmonella outbreak

Steamboat restaurant defends food handling

Steve Lipsher, Denver Post Mountain Bureau

Thursday, August 21, 2003

A Moffat County woman has filed a civil suit against a Steamboat Springs restaurant determined to be a source of a crippling salmonella outbreak last winter that left her and 50 others sick.

Tracy Sheldon claims that Seasons on the Pond, a trendy eatery only in its first month of operation at the time of her sickness, was negligent in handling the food that led to her illness in December and January.

Restaurant owner Tom Truong, however, said he believes the contaminated food unknowingly was accepted from a supplier and was not the result of unsanitary conditions at the popular restaurant.

"We're not going to deny that it happened. It did happen," Truong said. "It was unavoidable. I wish we could have done something about it, but we can't. We're doing our best right now to let people know that it's not something that we did purposely."

A joint investigation by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Routt County Environmental Health Department determined the outbreak was most likely linked to contaminated fruit served at the restaurant.

Sheldon reportedly consumed only a hamburger, fries and iced tea, but health officials say "cross- contamination" with other foods is likely in such cases.

For several days, she suffered intense cramping, diarrhea and vomiting that left her so severely dehydrated that she suffered short- term kidney failure and had to be hospitalized for four days.

"It is a wicked thing to go through," Sheldon said via her attorneys at the Seattle law firm Marler Clark, which specializes in representing victims of food-borne illnesses across the country.

Patrons started showing symptoms of salmonella poisoning on Dec. 15, and doctors recognized it as an outbreak a couple of days later, said Alicia Cronquist, who was working at the time as a CDC epidemiologist and now serves in a similar capacity with the state health department.

Investigators confirmed the presence of a distinct strain of salmonella in 26 people and determined 51 total cases were likely to have resulted from dining at the restaurant over the course of a couple of days.

Although the lawsuit - which seeks an unspecified amount in damages and attorneys' fees - claims that the outbreak was traced to a restaurant worker, Truong disputes that contention, and health officials said they couldn't pinpoint the source.

"It's hard to know whether an ingredient purchased by the restaurant was already contaminated or if it came from a worker. That we will never know," Cronquist said.

The restaurant has had no other health-safety issues, according to Nadine Harrach, an environmental health specialist with the county health department.

Additionally, Truong said he has taken steps to prevent a recurrence, including washing fruit rinds in bleach solution.

"It has hurt us tremendously," he said. "But there's been a tremendous number of people who also got infected who have come back and shown support and not pointed fingers at us."

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