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Feb. 25, 2024

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Here’s where things stand as Tacoma Frugals moves forward after deadly Listeria outbreak

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TACOMA — A local burger chain that was at the center of a fatal Listeria outbreak this year has returned to serving milkshakes using a replacement machine from one of its other restaurants.

The Tacoma Frugals passed its first overall inspection by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department since the outbreak. Health officials say that other critical issues flagged during the inspection were corrected.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department on Oct. 4 approved resuming shake service at Tacoma Frugals, 10727 Pacific Ave. S. with the following conditions:

  • Cleaning procedures and machine manual must be kept on site and available for review.
  • Facility must maintain all brushes listed in the machine’s manual on site.
  • Maintain cleaning and maintenance logs for the shake machine on site for review.
  • All staff who clean the machine must be trained, and training records kept on site for review.
  • Results of any voluntarily samples or tests of the machines to be provided to TPCHD.

In the report, the health department said the site would be “required to stop service of shakes if these conditions are not met during future inspections.”

Frugals Tacoma had stopped serving milkshakes from its two machines Aug. 8 after health officials discovered two people who had become ill had reported consuming milkshakes from the restaurant. Investigators collected samples, and 10 days later determined that all flavors of the milkshakes from the site were contaminated with the same strain of Listeria.

The state Department of Health reported six people developing severe illness between Feb. 27 and July 22, after being infected with Listeria. Health officials cited genetic fingerprinting of the bacteria indicated the same food “was likely responsible for making all six people sick,” DOH said at the time.

Five of the individuals were from Pierce County and one was from Thurston County. Three died.

Insufficient cleaning, lack of proper cleaning tools and a crack in one of the machine holding bins were among the issues blamed for the bacterial contamination.

The Oct. 4 inspection report stated that the contaminated machines had been removed. In their place, the Tacoma restaurant is using a Taylor 5454 shake freezer relocated from Frugals in Auburn.

“The machine tested negative for Listeria through third-party laboratory and provided the results to the inspector listed on this report,” it added.

The site was directed to verify that the machine reaches 41 degrees Fahrenheit and below “prior to stocking with any mix.”

Frugals also was directed to provide documentation “certifying the two contaminated Taylor 5454 machines have been destroyed.”

The company submitted updated cleaning and training procedures for the shake machine with a training certification log, and a daily and weekly cleaning and sanitizing schedule for the entire site, along with a cleaning log for the shake machine, as well as a replacement schedule for machine gaskets, hoses and brushes.

The report listed the TPCHD official on site for about 20 minutes.

Health inspection

A health inspector returned to the site Oct. 19 for its first routine inspection since April. In the October report, the restaurant was cited for two red (critical) violations, and four blue (noncritical) violations.

In the first red violation, the inspector “observed boxes of raw beef patties stored above containers of soft serve mix,” according to the report. The inspector noted raw meats “must be stored below and away from ready-to-eat foods.”

The mix was relocated, and the inspector recommended “keeping raw meat on the bottom shelf.”

In the second critical violation, the inspector wrote that the onsite sanitizer registered above the recommended level of chlorine. It was remixed and the inspector recommended having test strips “on site at all times.”

The visit lasted just over an hour.

Kenny Via, TPCHD media representative, told The News Tribune this week in response to questions that none of the violations “were related to the previous issues with the shake machines.”

As for the raw-beef storage violation, “Even though this is a critical violation, it has a lower point total (5) based on risk level. This violation is about proper storage procedures for raw meat to be below and away from other foods. This is not about active cross-contamination,” he said via email.

As for the too-strong sanitizer, he wrote that the violation also had “a lower point total (10) based on risk level than more severe critical items — in comparison to others that are higher risk for immediate illness, like improper hand washing with 25 points.”

The four noncritical violations Via said were considered “good housekeeping issues and less likely to cause illness,” including using dry towels to wipe down surfaces instead of those stored in sanitizer and storing clean wiping towels and aprons in the restroom, which is not allowed.

Additionally the inspector found a noncommercial food processor on site, also not permitted, and the dish sink had a small leak with some water on the floor.

Frugals’ total points in the Oct. 19 inspection (critical and noncritical) was 33. Via noted that the restaurant’s “15-point (critical violation) total in this inspection is still a passing grade.”

“It takes a score of 35 (critical violation) points or greater to trigger a follow-up inspection and lower a food establishment’s safety rating,” he added.

Its April 19 inspection tallied 38 total points — 25 points critical.

In that report, improper hand washing was the lone critical issue. Two of the three noncritical issues in April were similar to those found in the October inspection: gloves stored in the restroom and a noncommercial food processor on site.

“All of the critical items and most of the non-critical items were corrected while our inspector was still on-site,” Via told The News Tribune.

The October inspection was routine, and, given the results, no extra check-ins are required post-outbreak, according to Via. He added that inspectors “will be carefully reviewing their shake machine processes,” going forward in future site visits.

Sites are reviewed by the department anywhere from one to four times a year.

Three separate lawsuits have been filed against Frugals, a family-owned company with locations in Washington, Idaho and Montana. The lawsuits include two from customers hospitalized after falling ill from consuming shakes from the Tacoma restaurant on June 6 and June 24, respectively. The first lawsuit filed was from the estate of a customer who consumed one or more shakes between March and April and later died.

Seattle attorney William Marler is representing the customers in the cases and took issue with Frugals’ follow-up inspection results, notably the raw-meat storage.

“That is really irresponsible, especially in light of what happened this last summer. One would think that they would be on heightened alert,” Marler told The News Tribune via email.

Frugals as of late Friday afternoon had not responded to a request for comment about the return to service or the October inspection.

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