Judge approves $16 million class action lawsuit over deadly E. coli outbreak in Edmonton

A judge has approved a $16 million class action claim that tainted pork sold by the Hutterite colony in central Alberta led to a deadly E. coli outbreak in Edmonton four years ago.

The suit seeks compensation for people who have suffered damages as a result of purchasing or consuming contaminated pork products from The Meat Shop in Pine Haven, a meatpacking and retail operation in the Pine Haven Hutterite Colony near Wetaskiwin.

The suit, upheld by King’s Bench court James Nelson, alleges that the store and its operators – the Pine Haven Hutterite Colony and the Hutterian Brethren Church of Pine Haven – failed to prevent and contain the outbreak.

One person died and 42 became ill in the outbreak in the spring of 2018. The cases were linked to pork products contaminated with O157:H7, a strong strain of E. coli.

Of those who fell ill, 14 people were hospitalized and five developed hemolytic uremic syndrome – a disease that affects the kidneys and blood clotting functions.

About half of the cases involved people who ate at Mama Nita’s, a Filipino restaurant in southeast Edmonton that has since closed. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency traced pork products to The Meat Shop in Pine Haven.

“The defendants owe a duty of care to the plaintiff and other members of the class to ensure that his products are safe for consumption and that ingestion of such products will not cause illness or injury,” the plaintiffs say in their statement of claim.

They seek compensation for physical injury, psychological suffering, medical expenses and lost wages. The lawsuit also seeks refunds on behalf of consumers who purchased the recalled meat.

In total, the plaintiffs are seeking $15 million in damages and another $1 million in special damages.

The lawsuit also seeks acknowledgment that the recalled pork sold by The Meat Shop was contaminated and that the defendants had negligently manufactured, processed and packaged it.

None of these allegations have been proven in court.

I felt like I was going to die.-Nora Romero

Rick Mallett, an Edmonton attorney, who represents the plaintiffs, said about 45 people are part of the lawsuit. He expects it will take up to two years to reach trial.

Edmontonian Nora Romero, 67, is the representative plaintiff.

After a day dining at Mama Nita’s restaurant in March 2018, Romero developed severe stomach cramps, fever, and an upset stomach. She was hospitalized and diagnosed with E. coli.

She spent two days in the hospital, often on a morphine drip. She said it was the most severe stomach ailment she had ever suffered and the most traumatic experience of her life.

“I don’t like to remember that because it was so sad and so painful,” Romero said. “I felt like I was going to die.”

Nora Romero was hospitalized after contracting an E. coli infection in the spring of 2018. She is the plaintiff represented in the class action. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

The meat store in Pine Haven denies the allegations. She has sued a third party against Mama Nita, claiming that the restaurant should take responsibility.

An Alberta Health Services investigation found 22 of the lab-confirmed cases were linked to the restaurant.

Investigators found that 35 of the 43 people who contracted E. coli were directly or indirectly exposed to food from a facility that purchased pork from a meat store.

The summary of the AHS investigation, obtained by prosecutors, shows how inspectors uncovered food safety concerns at Mama Nita and The Meat Shop.

At the restaurant, inspectors detailed sanitation and cooling issues, including evidence of rat infestation.

In the Hutterite colony, inspectors noted three areas of concern: a lack of record-keeping; insufficient handling of the ready-to-eat product; Inappropriate slaughter procedures.

The ready-to-eat products were prepared with the same equipment as the raw product. The investigation concluded that the procedures did not effectively reduce the risks of cross-contamination and that the equipment had visible residue buildup.

The meat store denies that its pork has been contaminated or that the plaintiffs have consumed its products. She blames Mama Nita for failing to properly cook pork to ensure it was safe for consumption.

Mama Nita denies all allegations and denies responsibility. In a defensive statement, the restaurant said The Meat Shop failed to properly examine the pork and denies the ongoing medical losses suffered by the plaintiffs.

Escherichia coli is a large group of bacteria commonly found in the environment, foods, and intestines of animals and humans. Most strains are harmless. The specific strain of E. coli O157:H7 is dangerous to people, and produces a strong toxin that can cause severe illness.

The main symptom of an E. coli infection is diarrhea, which can be accompanied by blood. Serious, life-threatening symptoms, including strokes and seizures, can develop.

Outbreak Tracking

Cases began appearing in the Edmonton area in March 2018. Alberta Health Services and federal investigators began investigating. The investigation cited The Meat Shop as the main source of the outbreak.

On April 24, 2018, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued a mandatory recall covering all pork products sold and distributed by The Meat Shop in Pine Haven between February 19 and April 24.

According to the statement of claim, the meat store was negligent in the quality control, monitoring, processing, storage, distribution and sale of the subsequently recalled product.

The lawsuit alleges that The Meat Shop failed to thoroughly test its products and also failed to adequately clean equipment or properly train its staff to handle food safely.

It also claims that The Meat Shop failed to recall all the contaminated pork immediately upon learning that people had become ill.