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They thought it was Parmesan: Easthampton health agent says Riff’s Joint customer sickened by suspected chemical in food

Duda said the victim, a teenager whom she declined to name, is doing fine. The teen had symptoms immediately after eating the food Sunday and was driven to an emergency room for treatment, she said. She said she does not believe anyone else ingested the cleaner.

While Duda said she is still in the midst of her investigation into the incident, she has met with the owners of Riff’s Joint and is confident they have rectified the issues that led to the poisoning.

“I feel confident this won’t happen again,” she said. “We feel it was a mistake. While we can’t pin down the employee or employees responsible, someone wasn’t following protocol.”

Jeffrey Cahill, who co-owns the eatery in the Eastworks Building with Richard Lyman, said the contamination was due to “gross human error.”

“This was a very isolated incident and we have made sure it won’t happen again,” Cahill said when reached at the restaurant Wednesday. “We did some investigating, found the cause, retrained the staff, and now it should be over.”

Duda said that she met with Lyman and Cahill after receiving a call about the contamination and they explained what they believed happened.

The powdered chemical cleaner had been removed from its original container and placed in another container that was not properly labeled, she said. An employee mistook it for grated cheese and put it on a dish. “That’s why we have protocols about chemicals being labeled,” Duda said.

In contrast to Duda’s account of their conversation, Lyman said Wednesday that it has not been determined that the patron was sickened by a chemical cleaner. He said there was no testing done to confirm what it was.

When asked if cleaning products were near food preparation areas when the incident occurred, Cahill said they properly store all cleaning products away from cooking areas.

He said that while they have not been able to determine who put the contaminant in the food, they have not punished or fired anyone who was working at the time.

Duda said she was pleased to learn that even before she contacted them, Lyman and Cahill had met with staff to review the protocols for using chemicals. Cahill said that another full staff meeting on the topic will be held Sunday.

Next, Duda said she will be speaking to medical staff who treated the victim to try to determine what kind of chemical was ingested. She is also trying to reach the parents of the victim for more information.

While she believes that someone at Riff’s Joint did not properly label the chemical cleaner, Duda said that she does not plan to issue any kind of violation or order corrective action since the owners have already made the changes she would have called for.

When her investigation is complete, she will send them a letter reiterating what went wrong and what must be done to prevent it.

“We’re trying to reinforce” the importance of following safety protocols, she said. “I believe staff got the message from the owners.”

Duda said this is the first time since she became the health agent in January 2012 that she has investigated a health issue at Riff’s Joint.

Cahill and Lyman originally opened Riff’s Joint on Union Street late 2009. They moved to the Eastworks Building in January 2012 and opened an adjoining bar, The Hideaway, in November 2012. They also own Myers Catering.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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