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Lawsuit filed against local caterer in E. coli outbreak

MarlerClark, a Seattle-based law firm specializing in food safety, has filed suit against House of Prime on behalf of Cloquet resident Robert Danielson. Danielson became ill with E. coli after consuming food prepared by Jim-N-Jo’s Northland Katering, which is owned and operated by House of Prime.

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Danielson, one of some 60 people who became sickened with E. coli, fell ill after consuming food served at an Elder’s Picnic hosted by the Fond du Lac Reservation on July 11. All the food served at the event was prepared by Jim-N-Jo’s Northland Katering, which is headquartered in Cloquet.

Several days after the Elders Picnic, Danielson was affected with nausea, fatigue and a general feeling of malaise. His symptoms worsened that night and over the course of the next day, to include severe and bloody diarrhea. Eventually he sought emergency medical treatment at Community Memorial Hospital where he was rehydrated and given medications to ease his discomfort.

Danielson — and others who attended the Elders Picnic, as well two other events held around that same time period — tested positive for E. coli O157, the most common strain of E.coli. This launched an investigation by local health officials and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). In addition, Danielson and three others retained MarlerClark to launch an investigation of its own.

Doug Schultz, communications spokesman for the MDH, later confirmed the MDH had determined that potato salad was the vehicle of transmission for some of the E. coli O157 illnesses on the Reservation. He added that several confirmed cases were also associated with an additional catered event held on July 12 that did not serve the potato salad but had other raw ingredients in common with potato salad, including onion and celery.

Schultz said the MDH investigated the food preparation and handling operation of the caterer, which remained unnamed at the time, and found it to be “very well done.”

“There were no red flags, no signs of any cross-contamination,” he reported.

In an email last week, however, Schultz confirmed that the tainted food product served at the three events was catered by Jim-N-Jo’s Northland Katering between the dates of July 11 and July 17.  He indicated the investigation was ongoing.

When contacted on Wednesday, Jim Vnuk of Jim-N-Jo’s Katering, issued the following statement:

“We are fully cooperating in the investigation in every way and trying to help out in whatever way we can. We are as distraught about everything as everyone else is, and we are concerned for the welfare of the people who came into contact with the food.”

Vnuk went on to say that after an intensive investigation at his catering operation by the MDH, he was told the culprit could well have been the celery he obtained from an outside supplier, adding the celery may have been contaminated from within, not any inside policies or procedures. They added the celery may have been contaminated from within, he said.

“It that case,” said Vnuk, “just washing it doesn’t work. They told me the only thing that would have helped would have been to cook it, and that’s something you don’t normally do when you serve celery sticks or put celery into potato salad.”

He said though he hasn’t changed any of this suppliers since the incident, he has stopped using celery altogether until the investigation is complete. He added that he and his staff have also looked at and reinforced all of their food preparation processes with an eye toward keeping things safe.

Since being discharged from the hospital, Danielson reports his health has steadily improved.

Of the people who attended these events and became ill in mid-July, the MDH reports a total of nine cases were hospitalized and the latest onset of illness reported was July 23. There have been no new cases or hospitalizations reported since the beginning of August, said Schultz, and here have been no deaths associated with the outbreak.