Snafu left E. coli tainted restaurant open

Wolf's Den Restaurant was left open in March after health inspectors found E. coli bacteria in the kitchen tap.

Wolf’s Den Restaurant was left open in March after health inspectors found E. coli bacteria in the kitchen tap.

This baffled and concerned the lab technician who identified the bacteria, which, in extreme cases, can cause kidney failure and death.

“When I asked about this issue, I was told inspectors handle different issues in different fashions,” wrote Justin Lemphers in an e-mail, obtained by Yukon News through an access-to-information request after considerable foot-dragging on the part of government. “Because there’s no black-and-white format to follow, it is difficult to prescribe any form of enforcement against a proprietor.

“If this is indeed the case, what function does the lab serve? My understanding of the lab’s purpose is to ensure the public is provided with safe drinking water.

“E. coli is the most significant test parameter. To make a statement which says, ‘We wing it’ for the greatest threat to public health certainly seems to devalue the contribution of the lab.

“I can only imagine the public response if it were known the regulators responsible did not close them or require notice to be posted advising of the past, present and future risk.”

The restaurant was actually ordered shut after the discovery of E. coli, says Eric Bergsma, who managed Environmental Health Services at the time. (He has since been moved into a policy development post.)

The paper trail supports this: on Thursday, March 18, inspector Todd Pinkess wrote, “I phoned and spoke with owner/operator Harry Ochsner and directed him to discontinue operation of business until this gets sorted out.”

Yet inspectors discovered the next day that the restaurant had remained open. Bergsma says this potentially dangerous slip-up stemmed from a simple misunderstanding.

The Wolf’s Den kitchen is used both as a business and for the personal use of its owners, who were told to close the commercial operation and to boil water “for their own needs,” said Bergsma.

Ochsner, who hails from Switzerland, misinterpreted this to mean that he could keep the business open if he boiled the water used in the kitchen, said Bergsma.

Usually, a closure notice is followed-up with a written order. Such was the case when inspectors closed New Oriental Restaurant earlier this summer after it was discovered the restaurant was operating without hot water.

But no written notice was served to Wolf’s Den. This was because the order to close was made late in the afternoon, said Bergsma, and the inspector felt he didn’t have time to drive to the restaurant, located along the Alaska Highway near the Carcross cutoff.

Bergsma says he would never expect a commercial kitchen to operate with a water-boil advisory in effect. But Ochsner insists he made do.

“We’re not the High Country Inn,” he said, explaining he serves approximately 50 diners on a typical evening.

Only bottled water was served to customers. And a notice in the washroom told customers to not drink water from the tap.

He began boiling water early in the afternoon to cook and clean in the kitchen. It was also used for washing dishes and hands, he said. Meat was thawed in the refrigerator overnight.

And Ochsner unscrewed the contaminated water faucet and let it disinfect in boiling water. A water sample collected Friday found the tap free of E. coli.

But later tests found total coliform bacteria in one of the restaurant’s three water tanks. The restaurant was ordered on a Friday to shut-off the tank in question from the water supply. The tank was cleaned and filled with fresh water, and new filters were inserted.

By then, inspectors had discovered the restaurant had stayed open. But, with no further sign of E. coli in the kitchen taps, Wolf’s Den was kept open.

By Saturday, all follow-up water tests returned bacteria-free. The territory received no reports of customers who became ill from the restaurant, said Bergsma.

One troubling question that remains unanswerable is how long E. coli had lingered inside the kitchen tap. Prior to the positive test, the last inspection of the restaurant occurred in June of 2009. That leaves a nine-month window before E. coli would be discovered.

Yukon’s six inspectors are supposed to pay surprise visits to commercial kitchens deemed high-risk at least twice a year, and for low-risk establishments, once a year. But it’s clear this schedule isn’t always followed.

A review of inspection documents by Yukon News found that at least four establishments have not been inspected since 2008: the McDonald’s beside Walmart, Beejay’s Services, the Yukon College cafeteria and Kathleen Cabins near Haines Junction.

That’s likely because inspectors occasionally become bogged down with checks to higher-risk restaurants, said Bergsma.

The Wolf’s Den incident led to “a lot of evaluations,” said Bergsma. “Some improvements have been identified.”

Yet no changes have yet been made to how the unit deals with E. coli discoveries. Environmental Health is toying with the idea of making it mandatory for inspectors to deliver written closure notices, but officials worry this would prove a hassle when dealing with businesses in the more remote communities.

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