March 13, 2002
About 100 people -- including at least nine who were hospitalized -- got sick from a salmonella outbreak that originated at a Clinton Township bakery, county health officials said.
"It's a large outbreak -- one of the largest we've had," said Dr. Kevin Lokar of the Macomb County Health Department.
Black Forest Cakes & Pasties sold cannolis and cassatta cakes that were contaminated with the bacteria and eaten between Feb. 28 and March 5, many at parties.
Health officials first learned of the problem last Wednesday, when a local hospital informed them that 14 people who ate food from Black Forest suffered symptoms of salmonella infection.
One family has contacted nationally known foodborne-illness attorney Marler Clark of Seattle for possible legal action.
"These people deserve to be compensated for their pain and suffering, medical expenses and loss of wages," Clark said. "Nobody did this on purpose. Hopefully (Black Forest) has insurance, and the insurance company can take care of these people."
Salmonella sickness is "nasty," Clark said. "You wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy."
Victims suffer from abdominal cramps, diarrhea and fever that can be fatal in infants, the elderly and others with weakened immune systems. In 5 percent of the cases, it can lead to chronic arthritis.
The bacteria are transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces. Contaminated foods usually are of animal origin -- beef, poultry, milk or eggs -- but all foods can be contaminated. Thorough cooking kills the bacteria.
Store owner Ron Matoski said his cannoli filling contains milk, sugar and corn starch, and no eggs or cheese.
About 150 people attended social gatherings where the contaminated treats were served, meaning about two-thirds of the party-goers ate the bad pastries.
"That's a pretty high rate," Lokar said, meaning the bacteria must have been fairly widespread and intense.
Health officials do not know yet whether the poisoned product was contaminated before or after arriving at Black Forest.
The store, located at the corner of 19 Mile and Hayes roads, remained open after two inspections Thursday and Friday by the Michigan Department of Agriculture, which issues the store's license.
Inspectors found inadequate sanitizing of food preparation and storage areas and utensils, and not enough hand washing by employees, said Sarah Linsmeier-Wurfel, Agriculture Department spokeswoman. In the storage area, inspectors found egg white in a container dripping onto a container below it that held filling, she said.
Disciplinary action has not been determined.
The problems were corrected immediately as store owner Matoski cooperated with Department of Agriculture officials, Linsmeier-Wurfel said. The areas in question were immediately cleaned, and the suspected filling used in the cannolis and cakes was seized or thrown away.
"What can I say?" Matoski said Tuesday morning before health officials concluded the store was the point of origin. "I'd like to know where it's coming from. I've been in business for 34 years and nothing like this has happened."
In its two prior regular inspections by agriculture officials, the store had no critical violations in July 2001, but in November 2000 it was cited for a critical violation -- employees failed to wear gloves while handling food.
"They were using barehand contact, and they have to avoid or minimize barehand contact," Linsmeier-Wurfel said.
Matoski said the publicity from the outbreak has damaged his business.
"People are canceling orders," he said. "People aren't coming in."
Outside the store Tuesday, workers at a neighboring business said they love its food and clean appearance.
"I get a cannoli there every Friday and never have had a problem," said Christine Chludzinski, manager at Southwinds Travel, while sipping from a cup of coffee purchased at Black Forest. "I buy cakes and other stuff from there all the time for kids' birthdays."
Brad Burdette, 20, of Macomb Township, bought a couple of brownies and two pieces of German chocolate cake for him and his mother. He hadn't heard about the Salmonella outbreak.
"I've been coming here for four or five years," he said. "They've always been good to me. I can't worry about it."
But Beth Celeste, 28, of Clinton Township, canceled an order for two cakes she wanted to serve at two parties she's having March 23, despite her empathy for the operators. The store returned her $20 deposit.
"My heart breaks for them, but they put the burden on me," she said. "I didn't want to take any chances.
"I've got to find another bakery."
Health officials reminded people to wash their hands and food preparation areas to prevent Salmonella poisoning.
But in an instance like this in which food is purchased, Lokar admitted there's little protection.
"There isn't much you can recommend," Lokar said.
Attorney Clark, who has litigated dozens of food-contamination cases, said since the bacteria is contagious, family members of the sick should thoroughly clean bathrooms and other areas where people got sick.