An Evanston restaurant that provided food for a parent-teacher conferences at Haven Middle School last month has been sued by a woman who says she became ill after eating at the event.

The Evanston Health Department said last week that poor food handling practices were the apparent cause of the outbreak that left 30 people reporting stomach flu symptoms after eating food catered from Merle’s BBQ Restaurant at 1727 Benson St.

Attorneys representing Beatrice Jenkins announced on their website today that they had filed suit Tuesday on her behalf in Cook County Circuit Court.

Jenkins says she was volunteering at the school during the parent-teacher conferences on Feb. 16 when she and her daughter ate barbeque pulled chicken from the restaurant.

The suit claims both Jenkins and her daughter became ill with severe gastrointestinal illness and were treated at the emergency room at Evanston Hospital.

The health department said test results indicated that the chicken was contaminated with Clostridium perfrigens, a bacteria that grows when food is not kept warm enough or chilled properly.

“This was an entirely avoidable outbreak, had proper food safety precautions been employed by Merle’s,” said Jenkin’s attorney, Drew Falkenstein.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Merle’s Response

    Refuses to Issue Retraction

    (Evanston, IL)—The City of Evanston posted a press release on its government website on Friday, February 24, falsely claiming that Merle’s Barbecue (1727 Benson Avenue, Evanston) was to blame for 30 individuals who became sick as a result of eating food prepared by the Evanston eatery. 

    The claim stems from a parent-teacher conference event held at Evanston School District 65 (Haven Middle School) on Wednesday, February 16, 2011 for which Merle’s had supplied food.

    Larry Huber, owner of Merle’s, says, “The City of Evanston made a rush to judgment and recklessly issued a press release naming Merle’s as the cause of a food borne illness outbreak without one, single, shred of documentation or evidence.  In fact, they issued the release before test results were available and the investigation was even concluded!”

    The City of Evanston press release reads as follows:

    Health inspectors were sent to Merle’s to collect food samples and perform a detailed inspection with regards to food handling, storage and transportation. Results of the test indicated Clostridium perfrigens as the causative agent.

    Huber’s response, “This statement is false! The Evanston Health Department told me that none of the samples removed from Merle’s tested positive for any food borne illness of any kind.“

    The press release goes on to say,
    ‘…the investigation revealed unsafe food handling and temperature storage at Merle’s BBQ Restaurant…’ said Evanston Health Director Evonda Thomas.

    Again, Huber responds, “This is another completely false statement.” In a conversation with the Division Manager of Evanston Health Department, Carl Caneva, Huber questioned Mr. Caneva as to how they were able to make this determination. Mr. Caneva’s response was that Merle’s did not keep hourly time and temperature logs.  Mr. Huber reminded Mr. Caneva that this is not a practice that is required by either the State of Illinois or the City of Evanston. What is required , however, is that any potentially hazardous foods prepared and then cooled for later serving must be labeled with the time and date that they were made, to which Merle’s was and is in full compliance.

    According to Huber, the food was prepared fresh, taken directly from the oven, packaged and delivered within 20 minutes to the Haven Middle School and arrived at 3PM.  From that point forward, while the food was in the care of Haven Middle School, The Evanston Health Department investigation revealed that it was left sitting out at room temperature for four more hours.

    The City of Evanston press release also states that the individuals became ill after eating food “catered” by Merle’s.

    “Once again,” Mr. Huber says, “this is another false statement. The event was not a fully catered event but a drop and go delivery for which handling of the food from that point forward was the responsibility of the school, an institution that feeds children on a daily basis.  If it had been a fully catered event, we would have had the appropriate staff and equipment to maintain the presentation and quality. “

    The same food that was delivered to Haven Middle School was also served that evening to customers dining at Merle’s. Merle’s received no calls, emails, or any report of any illness, complaint, or negative effects from the very same food that was served at Haven Middle School.

    In the days following the incident, several calls were made by Huber and Merle’s management to health department officials requesting an update only to be told that the results were inconclusive. In reality, the City of Evanston had already prepared and sent out a press release, never attempting to notify Mr. Huber or Merles of the alleged findings of their investigation. "I bent over backwards for them and they didn't even have the professional courtesy to call me. I had to hear about it from a Tribune reporter!”

    For twenty years Merle’s Barbecue has been a respected member of the Evanston business community. In 2002, Mr. Huber and his partners, Mathew David and Scot McKay, both born and raised in Evanston, were the recipients of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce Small Business Persons of the Year Award.

    “We have been a part of this community for many, many years. To be falsely accused, tried and convicted in front of our families, friends and neighbors has been devastating. I wouldn't wish this upon anybody,” says Huber

    Asked if this has had an impact on business, Mr. Huber responds, “The result of the City of Evanston’s false accusation has created an onslaught of backlash against my livelihood.”  As an example, an employee of Haven Middle School has filed a lawsuit against Merle’s for $50,000. 

    The story has been featured on local television networks, newspapers, blogs and is spreading by word of mouth throughout the community. There have been numerous calls, emails, and inquiries questioning whether Merle’s is still a safe place to eat.  “All of the fall out I am experiencing is a direct result of the City of Evanston’s false accusations contained in their press release,” say Huber.

    He goes on to say that he requested from Mr. Caneva that the Evanston Health Department either issue a retraction or a follow up press release notifying the general public that Merle’s Barbecue is, in fact, a safe place to eat.  That request was denied by Mr. Caneva  and his supervisor Evonda Thomas. 

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