We trusted suppliers? California caterer faces lawsuits

Six people have filed lawsuits against Coconut Joe’s, a Bakersfield, California, restaurant and catering company, after 36 people became ill days after consuming its food. Most of them had attended a birthday party it had catered.

coconut.joesThe lawsuits were filed last fall and early this year following a Sept. 14, 2014, 90th birthday party for a member of Crossover Church of Rosedale, where the party took place. The hosts served mesquite grilled chicken from Coconut Joe’s, whose restaurant is at 4158 California Ave.

All of the civil cases are pending in Kern County Superior Court. A case management conference is scheduled for May 5. No trial date has been set.

Owner Joe Coughlin blamed the illness on Jordano’s, a wholesale food and beverage supplier based in Santa Barbara County that the restaurant was trying out for the first time the weekend of the party.

That was a “test run” of Jordano’s, which was trying to woo the restaurant’s business from a competitor, Coughlin said. He had not purchased chicken from Jordano’s previously and had already decided not to use the company again when word reached the restaurant that some party guests were getting sick, he said.

“In 28 years, we hadn’t had any problems … and we haven’t had any problems since,” Coughlin said, adding that he felt “caught in the middle” by a food safety gap that was beyond his control.

“That industry is heavily regulated,” he said. “We trusted them.”

Jordano’s, which Coconut Joe’s named in cross complaints dated April 17, did not return several telephone calls requesting an interview. In the court filing, Coconut Joe’s asked the court to make Jordano’s pay for any sum awarded to plaintiffs.

Jordano’s does not raise chickens. The company sells chicken raised elsewhere.

The California Department of Public Health tried to trace the chicken to its source and said based on records and coded packaging, it “most likely” came from Holmes Foods Inc.

Donna Fenton, director of Kern County Public Health Services’ Environmental Health Division, said “It was a little complicated because there was food brought in, too, like a pot luck, but there were people who had consumed food at Coconut Joe’s who had not been at the party, so while we can’t say with 100 percent certainty it was Coconut Joe’s chicken, because of the number of cases we can presume that that was the source of contamination.”

Ten restaurant inspections were conducted between Sept. 22, 2014, and Oct. 27, 2014. The county also questioned 36 customers who reported illness and tested stool samples from six of them.

Five samples came back positive for two different strains of the disease: four for salmonella serogroup B and one for salmonella serogroup A-1, according to the health department.