I-TEAM: Nearly 80 claim food sickness after dining at Town Center restaurant

Cooper's Hawk spokesperson: Illnesses may be linked to fresh produce

By Vic Micolucci - I-TEAM reporter, anchor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Nearly 80 people now claim they had food poisoning after eating at a popular restaurant at the Markets at Town Center on Jacksonville's Southside.

The News4Jax I-TEAM has been investigating allegations that customers who ate at Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant, located on Big Island Drive near the Markets of Town Center, became sick with a parasite.

On Tuesday, attorneys Shawn DeVries and Brian Lee said they retained nearly two dozen customers who complained of the same symptoms: diarrhea, nausea, fever and weakness.

Fact sheet from CDCMany of the patrons tested positive for Cyclospora, a parasite that can cause gastrointestinal issues for weeks. It’s often spread through produce.

VIEW: Cyclosporiasis (Cyclospora infection) fact sheet from the CDC |
RELATED RESOURCE: What is Cyclospora?

As of Wednesday afternoon, the lawyers said they had heard from nearly 80 ill customers. The I-TEAM also received more than a dozen messages from people in the same situation.

In a statement, a company spokesperson said in part that the illnesses may be linked to fresh produce purchased through a third-party vendor:

"Unfortunately, food grade produce washes do not kill Cyclospora and they are not visible to the naked eye. We have removed the product and changed suppliers for the ingredient in question."

Read the complete statement below

Miranda May, 25, said she and her boyfriend went to dinner at Cooper’s Hawk in mid-June to celebrate his new job. But a night out caused them weeks of discomfort.

Miranda May

“It was a lot of going to the restroom, fever, chills, way too weak,” said May (pictured). “We couldn’t even climb up a flight of stairs.”

The symptoms struck a week after the dinner. They were on a family vacation, but spent the whole trip in bed and the bathroom.

“I looked up all the symptoms for what it was and we matched every single symptom,” May said after someone sent her the initial I-TEAM story.

On Tuesday, the I-TEAM spoke with three people from a group of nearly two dozen people who said they came down with food poisoning after an Exchange Club banquet at the restaurant. 

Some said they were misdiagnosed initially, but were eventually found to have contracted Cyclospora. Doctors prescribed them specialized antibiotics to treat the parasite.

I-TEAM: About 2 dozen sick after food poisoning at popular restaurant, attorneys say

“I got up to go to the bathroom and collapsed,” said Tom Clift, whose wife called 911 after finding him. 

Clift was one of several who went to the hospital or emergency room after getting sick.

Linda Hofer

On Wednesday, Linda Hofer (pictured), 79, went to urgent care after her daughter saw the I-TEAM report. She had been sick for weeks and unsure of the cause.

Lawyers are now taking the cases and contacting the Duval County Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“We found out that it’s all because of a parasite,” said Lee, the attorney who specializes in foodborne illness. 

He and DeVries, who was also sickened, are working to get answers about what happened.

The I-TEAM has learned the affected customers ate at the restaurant between June 10 and June 24. While the exact menu item hasn’t been narrowed down, many said they had a salad with their meals.

Records show state inspectors visited Cooper’s Hawk twice in the month of June. During their first visit, according to state regulators' records, they cited the restaurant for four violations for things such as improper food storage and cleanliness issues. One violation was considered “high-priority.” During a follow-up inspection, records show, the restaurant had one intermediate violation. However, the eatery was never closed.

INSPECTION REPORTS: Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant on Big Island Drive

May and other customers said they probably won’t be back after the bout of stomach problems.

“I don’t know that I’ll eat there again,” she said.

May and her boyfriend said they had a doctor’s appointment to get treatment because they are still having relapses. 

Health Department officials did not give details about their investigation, despite multiple requests.

A manager at Cooper’s Hawk said she wasn’t comfortable commenting and referred the I-TEAM to the corporate office in Orland Park, Illinois. After two days of calls and emails, Cooper's Hawk released the following statement late Wednesday afternoon:

"Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant is committed to the health and safety of our Guest, our Staff, and our Community. We began receiving calls late Friday on June 21st from a few guests complaining of illness.  First thing the following morning, we notified the Health Department. Through the County Health Department’s investigative process, the illness appears to be linked to Cyclospora. Cyclospora typically comes from a fresh produce food item purchased through a 3rd party supplier. Unfortunately, food grade produce washes do not kill Cyclospora and they are not visible to the naked eye. We have removed the product and changed suppliers for the ingredient in question. 

"Illnesses are limited to a portion of Guests and some Employees who ate during the period of June 11th - 15th.  This matter is currently being investigated by the local county Health Department & local Health Authorities to support tracing the source of the food items. Those who participated in the investigation have played a valuable part in collecting the data needed to identify the source. 

"The Restaurant was free from any ongoing exposure or risk by the time the first Guest call was received as all fresh food products are typically consumed or disposed within a two to five-day period. 

"Cooper’s Hawk continues to work closely with the Health Department to follow all necessary protocols while upholding our commitment to the highest health and food safety standards in our restaurants. Cooper’s Hawk is also encouraging guests and the public who may have questions or concerns to reach out to our food safety/customer care line at 844-944-1444."

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