Judge certifies $16M class action in deadly E. coli outbreak in Edmonton

·5 min read
An E.coli outbreak in Edmonton in 2018 was linked to tainted pork products. A class action now seeks compensation for consumers. (M. Spencer Green/The Associated Press - image credit)
An E.coli outbreak in Edmonton in 2018 was linked to tainted pork products. A class action now seeks compensation for consumers. (M. Spencer Green/The Associated Press - image credit)

A judge has certified a $16-million class action alleging that contaminated pork sold by a central Alberta Hutterite colony led to a deadly E.coli outbreak in Edmonton four years ago.

The lawsuit seeks compensation for people who suffered damages as a result of buying or consuming contaminated pork products from The Meat Shop at Pine Haven, a meat-packing and retail operation at the Pine Haven Hutterite colony near Wetaskiwin.

The suit, certified Friday by Court of King's Bench Justice James Neilson, alleges that the shop 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 others fell ill in the outbreak in the spring of 2018. The cases were linked to pork products contaminated with O157:H7, a potent strain of E.coli.

Among 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 had eaten at Mama Nita's, a Filipino restaurant in southeast Edmonton which has since closed. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency traced the pork products to The Meat Shop at Pine Haven.

"The defendants owed a duty of care to the plaintiff and other class members to ensure that its products were safe for consumption and that ingestion of those products would not cause illness or injury," the plaintiffs say in their statement of claim.

They seek compensation for physical injury, mental anguish, medical expenses and lost wages. The suit also seeks refunds on behalf of consumers who bought the recalled meat.

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

The suit also seeks a declaration that the recalled pork sold by The Meat Shop was contaminated and that defendants were negligent in its manufacturing, processing and packaging.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

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

About 45 people are part of the suit, said Edmonton lawyer Rick Mallett, who represents the plaintiffs. He expects it could take up to two years to reach trial.

Edmontonian Nora Romero, 67, is the representative plaintiff.

A day after dining at Mama Nita's in March 2018, Romero developed severe stomach cramps, fever and gastrointestinal distress. She was hospitalized and diagnosed with E. coli.

She spent two days in hospital, often relying on a morphine drip. It was the most severe stomach illness she's ever had and the most painful experience of her life, she said.

"I don't like to remember because it was very sad and very painful," Romero said. "I felt like I was going to die."

Travis McEwan/CBC
Travis McEwan/CBC

The Meat Shop at Pine Haven denies the allegations. It has filed third-party proceedings against Mama Nita's, alleging the restaurant should be held liable.

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

Investigators found 35 of the 43 people who got infected with E. coli had direct or indirect exposure to food from a facility that purchased pork from The Meat Shop.

A summary of the investigation by AHS, obtained by the plaintiffs, details how inspectors uncovered food safety concerns at Mama Nita's and The Meat Shop.

At the restaurant, inspectors detailed issues with sanitation and refrigeration, including evidence of a mouse infestation.

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

Ready-to-eat products were prepared with the same equipment as raw product. Procedures didn't effectively minimize the risk of cross contamination and equipment had visible residue build-up, the investigation found.

The Meat Shop denies that its pork was contaminated or that the plaintiffs consumed its products. It blames Mama Nita's for failing to properly cook the pork to ensure it was safe for consumption.

Mama Nita's denies all allegations and disputes its liability. In a statement of defence, the restaurant says The Meat Shop failed to properly inspect its pork and denies the ongoing medical losses suffered by the plaintiffs.

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

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

Tracing the outbreak 

Cases began emerging in the Edmonton area in March 2018. Alberta Health Services and federal investigators began investigating. The investigation pointed to The Meat Shop as the primary source of the outbreak.

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

According to the statement of claim, The Meat Shop was negligent with quality control, monitoring and processing, storage, distribution and sale of the product that was later recalled.

The suit alleges that The Meat Shop failed to test its products rigorously and also failed to adequately clean equipment or properly train its staff in safe food handling.

It also alleges that The Meat Shop failed to recall all of the tainted pork immediately upon learning that people were becoming ill.