ON THIS DAY: November 3, 2003, Chi-Chi’s restaurant in Monaca linked to hepatitis A outbreak

MONACA, Pa. — A vortex of bad timing engulfed the Chi-Chi’s restaurant chain as the calendar flipped to November in 2003. The Minnesota-based Mexican food chain had already filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 8 and was struggling to regain its footing, when evidence of food poisoning at the Beaver Valley Mall location in Monaca first came to light in late October.

Health officials learned of the outbreak from emergency room doctors, who noted an unusually high number of hepatitis A cases. Interviews with patients eventually isolated the Chi-Chi’s restaurant as a common thread.

On Nov. 3, the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PDOH) issued an advisory, and suggested anyone who had eaten at the mall location within the past 14 days should receive an immune globulin shot against the hepatitis A virus.

The restaurant was immediately closed and four customers died, at least three of them from liver failure.

A mass vaccination clinic was established at Beaver County Community College and over 9,000 people received shots. Despite this, over 650 people became sick -- many with debilitating consequences, including one liver transplant. Among the cases were 13 employees of the restaurant. Primary and secondary cases, some caused by shared food, included residents of seven states.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration assisted the PDOH in its investigation to find the source of the disease, eventually traced to green onions. The green onions, served raw or undercooked at the restaurant, were linked to a company that imported them from Mexico, the Castellini Company. Chi-Chi’s filed a lawsuit against Castellini, but was unsuccessful.

Despite the company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware ruled that lawsuits against Chi-Chi’s related to the outbreak could move forward. Chi-Chi’s eventually settled 78 individual claims, including a $6.25 million settlement for the man who was forced to undergo liver transplant surgery, and a class action lawsuit which led to a $800,000 settlement fund.

It is estimated that the total damages of all the settlements related to the outbreak, including wrongful death claims, cost the chain $40 million.

The company’s remaining assets were quickly sold to the Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain in September 2004. Only 76 restaurants remained from Chi-Chi’s peak of 200 in 1986.

Outback sold off many locations and converted the rest to its own brands, which include Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar.

The deal did not include the actual brand name “Chi-Chi’s,” which was subsequently purchased by Hormel Foods to market grocery items including chips, torillas, salsa and other product