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Amid gripes, questions of favoritism

Rosemary H. Abate took her guests to Ken's Steak House in Framingham in 2005 after her mother's funeral. Abate and eight other guests who ate prime rib were stricken with diarrhea, and the beef was identified as the likely culprit. Rosemary H. Abate took her guests to Ken's Steak House in Framingham in 2005 after her mother's funeral. Abate and eight other guests who ate prime rib were stricken with diarrhea, and the beef was identified as the likely culprit. (DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF)

The day was grim enough to start with for Rosemary H. Abate of Hopkinton. May 6, 2005, was the day of her mother's funeral.

Then came the post-funeral brunch at Ken's Steak House in Framingham, for which Abate added roast prime rib of beef to the menu because she thought it would fortify her guests for their homeward journeys.

By that evening, Abate and eight other guests who ate the prime rib were having severe diarrhea. One of them, a 74-year-old cousin from upstate New York, was hospitalized with diarrhea and bleeding from the rectum.

Abate contacted the Framingham Board of Health, but she said in a recent interview that she was treated with hostility.

"They were pretty snappy to me," she said. "The lack of any concern was just mind-boggling."

What Abate did not know at the time is that Janet Cooper, the wife of the Board of Health's director, Robert Cooper, is the restaurant's general manager.

The restaurant, through its attorney, denied that its prime rib caused the multiple cases of food poisoning, although the state Department of Public Health identified the beef as the likely culprit -- after testing the contents of a doggie bag of prime rib that Abate took home.

Janet Cooper, in a brief interview, said it was "insulting to suggest that Ken's received any special treatment because I am the general manager."

But the Massachusetts state auditor, in a critical study of the state's food safety oversight that was released in March, reported what it said appeared to be a pattern of favoritism toward the restaurant.

Among the findings: Around the time Ken's had three cases of purported food poisoning, including the nine cases from the prime rib, the steakhouse was repeatedly cited for serious health code violations -- and for not correcting them.

The auditor, in reviewing shortcomings in restaurant inspections in 13 communities, did not identify the community or the restaurant in any of the cases, because its focus was on the state agency. The Globe obtained the auditor's working papers through a public records request.

In Framingham, the auditor noted, Robert Cooper properly declared the potential for conflict and recused himself from any involvement with Ken's when his wife was hired in 2002. Within a year, however, Cooper signed off on a report to the state concluding that a food poisoning complaint about Ken's was unsubstantiated.

During 2004 and 2005, when three additional complaints of food poisoning at Ken's were reported, including those from the funeral brunch, the auditors found that Ken's "was repeatedly cited for as many as 19 critical violations during a single inspection, and that the establishment had at one point been issued a written warning regarding repeated violations that were not corrected."

The auditors reported that two other restaurants with similar repeat violations were required by Cooper's office to hire food safety specialists to resolve their violations. But there was no similar enforcement action against Ken's.

Cooper, who retired this month, was unavailable for comment, and his wife declared: "You do not have to defend yourself when you've done nothing wrong."

Lise Mespelli, the acting director of Public Health, said the auditor's conclusions are uncalled for. "If anything," Mespelli said, "we would have been tougher on Ken's. Bob Cooper didn't want any possibility of a conflict of interest to even be insinuated, let alone happen."

As for Abate, a state Department of Public Health epidemiologist found evidence in the leftover meat of clostridium perfringens, a bacteria that is often the culprit in food poisoning cases. The state said the bacteria might survive in meat if initial cooking is insufficient, and if reheating is inadequate. The DPH concluded that the evidence suggested the nine illnesses were caused by the prime rib.

Even so, Fireman's Fund, the steak house's insurer, denied a claim by Abate's cousin for her medical bills. Among its reasons: The prime rib, it said, might have become contaminated after Abate took the leftovers home.

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