Brent’s Deli’s skyscraper-high corned beef and pastrami sandwiches have recently brought the establishment notoriety different from the usual caloric kind. We’re talking the type that comes from the health department and at least one lawsuit.
Stephanie Wehr of Oxnard is suing the Westlake Village Brent’s (there is also one in Northridge) for product liability, negligence, breach of implied warranty of merchantability and negligent infliction of emotional distress, after she became seriously ill after eating at the deli last August.
Wehr’s complaint alleges that Brent’s owner showed “conscious disregard for the rights and safety of people eating, using and visiting” the restaurant. Food-safety attorneys Trevor Quirk of Ventura and Bill Marler of Seattle filed the suit in Ventura civil court on Jan. 26.
Wehr contracted salmonella food poisoning after eating a corned beef sandwich and potato salad at Brent’s on Aug. 2, 2014, more than a month after Brent’s owner was first notified of foodborne illnesses associated with the deli and ordered to correct safety violations. According to her complaint, Wehr was hospitalized for five days and missed six weeks of work.
Wehr “took legal action because she wanted to make sure Brent's did not infect other people,” Quirk told the Weekly. “Ventura County told her she was the 12th confirmed case linked to Brent's, and she knew Brent's was still open. On top of that, Stephanie is a nurse practitioner and she could have infected other people.”
Last spring and summer, a string of customers became ill with salmonella food poisoning after eating a variety of dishes at Brent’s Westlake Village location, including corned beef, pastrami, turkey and rare roast beef sandwiches, and chef’s and potato salad.
Over the course of several inspections, the Ventura County Health Department found a slew of stomach-churning major violations of the California Retail Food Facilities Law and the Sherman Food and Drug Law, including improper food storage temperatures, lack of employee hand-washing, “encrusted food debris” where food is stored and overall general filth. Some outtakes from the reports:
“Food is stored directly on the floor.”
“Food is stored in containers not approved for food storage. Discontinue use of plastic grocery-type bags to store raw meat.”
“Observed several flies inside the [food] facility.”
“Equipment is unclean and maintained in unsanitary condition.”
Observed an employee “making a sandwich and soaking the bread with sanitizer solution” from his gloves.
“As a family-run business that serves hundreds of customers daily at our Westlake Village location, the news of even one customer becoming sick as a result of dining at our restaurant is of deep concern,” Brent’s owner Marc Hernandez said in an emailed statement to the Weekly. “We are committed to delivering our customers high-quality meals and service, and this service includes our focus on food safety.”
The first illness was reported in June, and illnesses continued to be reported until mid-August, when the health department banned 30 employees from working at Brent’s or any other food facility until they could prove they were free of salmonella infections, and Hernandez agreed to bring in an outside company to clean and disinfect the space.
“This past summer, we were notified by Ventura County officials that a few customers who had dined at our Westlake Village restaurant were confirmed to have salmonella,” Hernandez said in his statement. “Immediately upon learning of this situation, we worked very closely with Ventura County health officials to evaluate our food safety practices. We immediately addressed and corrected all of the county’s recommendations, and also hired a company that specializes in food-safety audits, assessments and trainings for the restaurant industry to further evaluate our practices and help us implement any necessary changes.”
In fact, according to the inspection reports, it took a few visits from the health department for Brent's to finally clean up its act (and its kitchen).
Eventually, 21 cases of salmonellosis (salmonella infection) were identified. Two of the 21 patients were employees of Brent’s. Eight patients were hospitalized. Dates of illness onset ranged from April 30 to Aug. 15, 2014.
The restaurant was allowed to reopen on Aug. 13. Health department inspections continued between Aug. 14 and Aug. 19. An inspection was conducted during the week of Sept. 12, and no violations were noted. The outbreak investigation was closed on Oct. 1, after no reports of illnesses had been received since Aug. 16.
To ensure such an outbreak never happens again, Hernandez says Brent’s has hired a company that exclusively focuses on food-safety practices for the restaurant industry to conduct regular, third-party audits of both restaurants’ food-safety practices. “We are focused on continuous improvement,” he said, “and will continue to take a hands-on approach to prevent similar situations from happening in the future to put our customers' safety first, always.”
It’s too little, too late, as far as attorney Marler is concerned. “It is frankly shocking that this outbreak went on as long as it did,” he told the Weekly. “It is also a bit troubling that the health department kept the fact of the outbreak under wraps for as long as it did.”
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Brent's is currently open for business — if you can muster an appetite.
Brent’s Deli, 2799 Townsgate, Westlake Village.