Bar manager in Bordeaux charged over deadly botulism outbreak during Rugby World Cup

Greek woman died and several others were hospitalised, including woman’s Irish husband, after eating homemade sardine preserves

A restaurant manager in France was charged with involuntary homicide on Wednesday over a botulism outbreak that killed one person and caused severe illness in 15 others who ate home-made sardine preserves at his organic wine bar.

The victims, most of them visitors, became ill in early September after eating at the Tchin Tchin wine bar in central Bordeaux, which attracted scores of tourists who were in town for the Rugby World Cup.

French authorities blamed botulism – an extremely rare but potentially life-threatening illness – and traced the outbreak to improperly prepared oil-based sardine preserves that were served at the wine bar.

One of the victims, a 32-year-old Greek woman, died, and several others were hospitalised in intensive care, including the Greek woman’s husband, who is from Co Mayo. The victims, most of them in their 30s and 40s, also included citizens from Canada, Germany, the UK and the US.


Frédérique Porterie, the public prosecutor in Bordeaux, said on Wednesday that the restaurant manager was now under formal investigation and that he had been charged with involuntary homicide and injuries caused by a deliberate failure to comply with safety regulations, endangering the life of others, failure to assist a person in danger, and the sale of contaminated or toxic food products.

The man, who has not been named by authorities, could face up to five years in prison and a significant fine. His lawyer was not immediately reachable for comment.

Ms Porterie said in a statement that investigators had uncovered “various breaches of health and hygiene rules” by the manager, “particularly with regard to the preparation of home-made preserves” that were sold to customers.

She did not elaborate. But French officials said in September that while the establishment had never been reported for health violations in the past, the manager had a “very artisanal” method for making the sardine preserves.

The man was taken into police custody Tuesday for questioning, Ms Porterie said. He has been released under strict conditions, mainly a ban on managing or operating a food service establishment.

Jade Dousselin, a lawyer for several victims in the case, including the woman who died and her Irish husband, welcomed the charges, which she said confirmed that her clients had fallen ill “not by tragic happenstance, but through the fault of a chain of responsibility that failed at every level”.

In a statement, Ms Dousselin criticised the “carelessness” of the manager of the wine bar, but she also said there had been shortcomings in the hospital care of her clients and in the time it took for French health authorities to sound the alarm about the outbreak.

“We will be vigilant to ensure that each party involved in this issue cannot hide behind the other’s failings and that each takes its fair share of responsibility,” she said.

Ms Porterie said that the investigation would look into the medical care that the victims received in the Bordeaux region and in the Paris region, where some of them lived, but she did not provide further details.

The case is now being handled by special magistrates who have broad investigative powers and who place defendants under formal investigation when they believe the evidence points to serious wrongdoing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, botulism is caused by a toxin that attacks the body’s nerves and paralyses muscles. Symptoms include difficulty breathing or swallowing, slurred speech, blurry vision, vomiting and diarrhoea.

The bacteria that make the botulinum toxin are found naturally and are usually harmless, according to the CDC. But foods that are improperly canned, preserved or fermented can provide the right conditions for the bacteria to produce lethal toxins. Most patients who become ill with botulism fully recover, but it can take several months.

– This article originally appeared in The New York Times