“Cruel and unusual punishment:” Kent County, Aramark being sued over food poisoning incident

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Kent County hired Aramark Corporation to provide food services at the Kent County Correctional Facility despite knowledge of the company's troubled history with such service and staff training, is part of the claim made in a lawsuit filed Thursday against the county, the sheriff's department and the privately-owned food service contractor.

A lawsuit filed in 17th Circuit Court Thursday on behalf of five former inmates of the Kent County Jail alleges they were poisoned as a result of being served spoiled or contaminated food at the jail in mid-April 2012 and endured "cruel and unusual punishment" as a result.

The incident in question in 2012 involved 200 inmates, a quarter of the population at the facility, becoming ill after eating a chicken taco meal. The Kent County Health Dept. later confirmed it had found spore-producing bacteria in samples of the food sent for testing. The bacteria is known to cause stomach cramps and intestinal problems.

No life-threatening health issues were ever reported.

The complaint argues the food poisoning resulted in the inmates suffering damages including cramping, suffering, long-term adverse health consequences, and other health problems unknown now that may become known in the future.

The suit is asking for at least $25,000 in damages.

Kent County, Sheriff Lawrence Stelma, Aramark Corp. and its subsidiaries are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The complaint argues Aramark Corp. failed to employ customary methods for safe food handling, failed to use equipment necessary to prevent spoilage or contamination and failed to hire properly trained workers to prevent it from happening.

Also asserted in the complaint is that Kent County acted with "deliberate indifference" by "contracting... with a low bidder." The suit alleges the county hired Aramark to provide food services "despite knowledge of (Aramark's) history of mass food poisonings caused by inadequate training, inadequate staffing, inadequate equipment and willful indifference to the health of those the company is charged with feeding in institutional settings."

This is the latest blemish for Aramark which has come under fire for food service issues in recent months, and even inappropriate relations between staff and inmates in Michigan correctional and prison facilities. In a previous case, maggots were reportedly found near food being served to prisoners.

Last March, the Michigan Department of Corrections fined the company over security concerns after reports found 292 food and menu-related violations of contract and 12 instances of employee-prisoner relationships that were inappropriate, resulting in $200,000 in fines. The company has also been fined another $98,000 during that time, but those were later canceled.

Grand Rapids-based attorney Jason Barrix, who filed the suit on behalf of the five inmates said this is a case he and his clients have been building for several years.

A spokesperson for the Kent County Sheriff's Department said they had not been served with the lawsuit as of Thursday afternoon and otherwise would not comment on any pending litigation.

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