E. coli outbreak sparks stricter food regulations

The Department of Health plans to toughen up food safety regulations following an outbreak of E. coli in the province, which officials believe may be linked to a Miramichi restaurant.

Starting in July, anyone who handles food sold to the public will have to take a course and maintain certification, said Dr. Denis Allard, the deputy chief medical officer of health.

The course will go along with the province’s restaurant inspection rankings, he said, noting even the best restaurants sometimes slip up.

“There’s lots of restaurants in the province that haven’t always had a good mark, not always green and occasionally may even had their license removed that have jumped back and now they have full approval from us and sometimes it serves as a lesson for them to be able to provide much safer food afterwards,” Allard said.

Officials believe the potentially deadly outbreak of E. coli is over because no new cases have been reported.

The public health office confirmed a week ago that 13 people were infected with the same strain of E. coli that killed seven people in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000.

And another 11 people may have also been infected by the strain of E. coli.

Recently failed health inspection
The majority of the E. coli cases in the Miramichi area ate at a Jungle Jim’s restaurant in the northern city prior to getting sick at the end of April, health officials revealed Tuesday.

“Right now I can’t tell you that it was something done at the restaurant itself or whether it was pre-contaminated before it got there,” said Allard.

No E. coli was found at Jungle Jim’s during testing, he said.

But the restaurant failed a health inspection last week. Infractions included storing raw food above cooked foods and fridge temperatures being above the standard of 4C.

“There were certainly some faults that were discovered at that point that we felt not only that it deserved a total sanitation of the place, in order to make sure the faults were not repeated,” Allard said.

“We felt they needed a thorough course in food handling. This was done that same night that the results of the inspection came back.”

A spokesman for Jungle Jim’s told CBC News that employees at the Miramichi location have all completed food safety training and the restaurant is operating according to the health department’s high standards.

The restaurant takes the health and safety of patrons seriously and has co-operated fully with the investigation, the spokesman said.

The franchise owner hopes patrons will continue to come and would welcome them to tour the kitchen facilities, he added.

Allard also offered assurances that Jungle Jim’s has made changes and passed its latest inspection.

Investigation continues
Meanwhile, the Department of Health is continuing its investigation with the Public Health Agency of Canada to try to track down the exact source, he said.

“If we can identify a certain food, then we’ll maybe look a little bit more into the suppliers of that food, the handling of that particular food at the restaurant to see if there might have been anything that would have been able to contaminate that food,” said Allard.

Health officials plan to broaden the investigation to include people who were at at Jungle Jim’s between April 23 and 26 and didn’t get sick, he said.

Those individuals will be asked to fill out a food questionnaire with the goal of discovering which foods were consumed by those who did not become infected with E. coli.

The results of the study will be communicated to the public, officials said.

Source likely gone
The provincial government focused on food sources after a check of the municipal water came back normal.

Provincial inspectors went to several restaurants that were mentioned by people who had the E. coli symptoms.

Dr. Eilish Cleary, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said in a statement a majority of the confirmed cases ate at a Jungle Jim’s restaurant in Miramichi in the days prior to getting sick.

“Food samples taken from Jungle Jim’s tested negative for E. Coli 157: H7,” Cleary said.

“However, as most of the confirmed cases ate at this restaurant, it is likely that the contaminated food source was present in the restaurant for a short period of time but that contaminated products had been used up when testing took place.”

Cleary said the case count has remained steady.

With no new cases of E. coil being reported, she said it suggests the source of the contamination remained in the food supply chain for only a short period of time.

She said Jungle Jim’s fully co-operated with provincial inspectors, including a thorough sanitation of its kitchen and the completion of a food safety course.

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