Both Olive Garden and Red Lobster have been linked to a foodborne illness outbreak that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said was caused by a salad mix that may have been served by the restaurant chains.
As a result, parent company Darden Restaurants Inc. is facing at least one lawsuit and could face several more, according to reports.
The first lawsuit against Darden came from Dallas resident Suzanne Matteis. According to a court filing, Matteis claims she became sick with cyclosporiasis, an intestinal infection caused by a parasite, after dining at an Olive Garden in Addison, Texas.
Matteis is suing for negligence, saying that Olive Garden is required to “conform to a reasonable standard of conduct for the safe storage, handling, preparation, distribution and sale of food product at their restaurant.” In the filing, she claims that she has suffered $15,000 in damages.
Rich Jeffers, a spokesman for Darden Restaurants, said the company is not commenting specifically on the current lawsuit. However, he said, “We do not use Taylor de Mexico farms [products] in Texas.”
According to the Food and Drug Administration, the outbreak of cyclosporiasis in two states — Nebraska and Iowa — has been traced to Taylor Farms de Mexico, S. de R.L. de C.V., a company that makes salad mixes for foodservice use.
“It is not yet clear whether the cases reported from other states are all part of the same outbreak,” the FDA said in a statement. “The investigation of increases cases of cyclosporiasis in other states continues.”
Salads sold in grocery stores, the organization said, have not been implicated in the outbreak.
Because the salad mix typically only has a shelf life of 14 days, all of the tainted mix should already be out of the supply chain, the FDA said. The last date someone became ill from this outbreak was July 1 in Iowa and July 2 in Nebraska.
In a statement, Darden Restaurants drove that point home, assuring consumers that it was safe to eat at its Olive Garden and Red Lobster locations. “We have been fully cooperating with the FDA, as well as the Iowa and Nebraska Health Departments, since the beginning of this investigation,” Darden restaurants said in a statement. “Iowa and Nebraska health authorities have said this is not an ongoing outbreak and the product is no longer in the food supply in those states.”
The statement continued, “It is completely safe to eat in our restaurants.”
Taylor Farms said in a statement that it is also “fully cooperating” with the FDA, as well, noting that as recently as 2011, the FDA’s assessment of the company’s implicated facility and operation was “outstanding ‘with no notable issues.’”
In June, the company both made and distributed 48 million salad servings to restaurants in the Midwestern United States, Taylor Farms said. The company’s other 11 North American plants were not implicated in the outbreak, the company said.
Tracking the outbreak
Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer at Marler Clark in Seattle, said that although the cases outside Iowa and Nebraska have yet to be traced, it’s hard to believe they came from different sources. “When you’re having a rare bug outbreak, all within a 30-day period in the middle of the country, it’s pretty hard to say that they’re not somehow related,” he said.
Co-packaging at a plant or shared farmland with Taylor Farms may be to blame for the outbreak in Texas and other states, he added.
Cyclosporiasis is very rare, Marler said, noting that the last case of the disease that he handled was 10 years ago and was related to raspberries from South America.
Cyclospora is a parasite that causes cyclosporiasis, an intestinal infection marked by vomiting, headaches, weight loss, diarrhea, stomach pain, and other flu-like symptoms, according to the FDA. Infections occur when a person eats food or drinks water contaminated with the parasite, and illness can last for a few days to longer than a month.
Marler said that Matteis may have some success with her suit against Darden but also noted that it’s easier to win cases in which the contamination causes long-term damage. Cyclosporiasis is very uncomfortable, he said, but has little long-term impact.
“It seems Darden is on the hook,” he said. “One of the most effective things a restaurant can do [when an outbreak occurs] is to define the problem and say ‘this is our problem.’ Our product made customers sick.”
However, he said, it is important to note that it’s likely not all cases came from Darden’s restaurants. It’s possible other outlets distributed contaminated food as well.
As of Monday at 5 p.m. there were more than 466 reported cases of cyclosporiasis in 16 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Iowa and Texas reported the most cases, with 151 reports in Iowa, and 157 cases reported in Texas. In Florida, where Darden is based, 25 cases were reported.
Orlando-based Darden Restaurants has more than 2,100 locations systemwide.