More than £300,000 has been paid out to victims of the largest outbreak of E.coli food poisoning in Northern Ireland, a court heard today.
Belfast Crown Court heard that compensation was paid to around 80 people by Moviehouse Cinema Limited – the parent company of the former Flicks restaurant at the Yorkgate complex, which was voluntary closed two days after the second outbreak emerged. The payments ranged from £3,000 to £12,000.
Moviehouse, which was represented in court by its managing director, Michael McAdam, admitted 11 food hygiene breaches. They included failing to ensure food handlers were supervised and instructed, failing to protect foods from E.coli contamination, failing to ensure staff toilets were kept clean, and keeping food at a temperature likely to support the growth of pathogenic micro-organisms or the formulation of toxins.
The court heard that Flicks was at the centre of two outbreaks of E.coli in 2012 – one in August which affected four people and a second outbreak in October where there were 141 confirmed cases. Two of the 141 cases were members of staff who tested positive.
Those affected included people deemed vulnerable such as children and a woman who had undergone a kidney transplant. Some 44 of those affected attended hospital, with 19 of those people admitted. One victim reported they have “never felt pain like it”.
A crown prosecutor said that while all the physical effects for those who contracted E.coli – such as stomach pain and diarrhoea – were overcome within a week, some victims have been left with anxiety about eating out.
During the hearing, the court heard that following several inspections at the restaurant, facilities in the staff toilet were found to be inadequate, as there was no soap or drying facilities for handwashing and a basin that couldn’t be used as it was obstructed with other items.
Other shortcomings included the fact that the restaurant was operating at a time using only one meat probe, that prepared ready-to-eat lettuce was found on the floor of the walk-in chiller directly below a container of fresh raw eggs, and that cling film used to wrap raw products was stored with that for wrapping ready-to-eat products.
It also emerged in court that while the source of the outbreaks had not been determined, it may be linked to a chef who was sent home with diarrhoea and who returned to work when he may not have been fit to return. Another source may have been from chopped parsley that was brought into the kitchen and which was not kept at the correct temperature.
The period of offending when the food hygiene breaches were committed spanned from March to October 2012. During this period, several practices within the kitchen were deemed to be “wholly inadequate”. It also emerged that during a period between the first and second outbreak, only lip service was paid to a document regarding E.coli.
Counsel for Mr McAdam and Moviehouse said the company had been operating since 1990, has several premises across Northern Ireland, and had a “clear record without any difficulties”. Pointing out that “the source of the outbreak has not been identified”, the barrister told the court it seemed to be the case that “it was brought in in some parsley”.
He said Flicks was run by a manager with more than 20 years catering experience, and that the chefs had relevant qualifications and came from agencies.
Regarding civil cases taken by those affected, the barrister said that 80 cases have been settled amounting to about £340,000, that the payments ranged between £3,000 and £12,000 and that a further 20 to 30 civil cases are outstanding.
Pointing out that Mr McAdam wasn’t a restauranteur and that the day-to-day running of Flicks was left to the manager, the barrister said Mr McAdam closed Flicks voluntarily in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak in October and “will not open it again”.
Counsel said that since the incidents in 2012, Mr McAdam has retained the consulting services of an independent hygiene company, that inspections take place on a regular basis and that “since the 2012 difficulties, there have been no further problems”.
After hearing submissions by both the Crown and defence, Judge Gordon Kerr QC said he would pass sentence on April 29th.