An Ocala woman allegedly poisoned by a “white” fish and chips dinner consumed at Whiskey Joe’s Bar and Grill in Tampa has led to a lawsuit filed with her husband against the well-known restaurant chain.

Fish Poisoning On The Rise As The World Turns, Lawsuit Slams Whiskey Joe’s Tampa

TAMPA, FL. – An Ocala woman allegedly poisoned by a “white” fish and chips dinner consumed at Whiskey Joe’s Bar and Grill in Tampa has led to a lawsuit filed with her husband against the well-known restaurant chain. Whiskey Joe’s parent company, Specialty Restaurants Corporation, and food distributors Sysco and Local Turtle Foods are also co-defendants in the case.

The alleged poisoning incident occurred on May 30, 2020.

Jennifer Pajevic, suffering from Ciguatera – which causes half of all food poisonings around the globe according to some studies – became severely ill within hours after consuming her dinner.  According to the lawsuit, she suffered “significant gastrointestinal problems and peripheral neuropathy, followed by severe pain and injury” which allegedly continues to plague her today. All defendants are accused of distributing and selling fish “spoiled, unwholesome and unfit for human consumption.”

The Pajevics’ attorney, Todd S. Stewart in Jupiter, Florida said, “What has been reported to my clients from the folks who work at Whiskey Joe’s is that they bought (the fish) from a new supplier in China. They hadn’t been familiar with them or hadn’t used them in the past.”

Stewart said Asia generally catches fish with more potent cases of Ciguatera. These are specifically coral reef fish and fish found around low-lying tropical shores.

However, the species of white fish Pajevic consumed is unknown, and it is not known if the fish was caught in the U.S. – perhaps even Florida – and exported to China for processing where filleting and packaging occurs – or if this was a native white fish of Asia. U.S. companies export and re-import fish from China to save on costs.

What is known is the COVID-19 pandemic’s global disruption to supply chains, including fisheries, and changes in ocean temperatures causing fish to migrate is affecting the spread of the disease, along with international tourism and increased fish consumption in recent years. Hurricanes are suspected of globally dispersing the algae which produces Ciguatera’s toxins.

These ciguatoxins are not harmful to fish, thus, fish cannot be checked for signs or symptoms of the toxin. There is also no technology to detect it, nor processes such as cooking, sterilizing, freezing or filleting, which can destroy it. Ciguatera fish also does not smell or taste bad. It can, however, reverse your sense of temperature. Cold foods and liquids will taste hot and hot items will taste cold.  

Asked by The Free Press if Whiskey Joe’s has been cooperative, Stewart said, “No, not really. We’ve had to just sue them because they won’t respond to our letters asking for insurance information and just generally asking to speak to someone about what happened. We usually try to resolve these cases before we have to file suit, but now we’ve gotten no response. I’m not saying it’s for sinister reasons or anything – I don’t know why.”

Stewart is ringing the alarm bell for fish eaters. “If there’s enough of a consumer demand for non-poisonous fish there’s going to be a market pressure applied to where restaurants only buy clean fish, if you will. Like Alaskan salmon. Alaska banned farm-raised fish altogether, it’s all wild and they use that as a selling point…Once this secret of Ciguatera fish poisoning gets out, there will be a demand, I believe, that will drive the market away from restaurants purchasing fish from shoddy Chinese importers. But, I haven’t been able to do enough discovery in the Pajevic case to know exactly that this is what I understand to have happened.”

Handling numerous seafood poisoning lawsuits, Stewart said that when questioned, restaurants and seafood suppliers don’t ask the right questions about the fish they buy to assess risk. He also said that Chile, one of the world’s top farm-raised salmon producers has caused Ciguatera in humans because the farmers have foolishly used reef fish as salmon food. And he lamented that doctors are often unaware they are required to report Ciguatera cases, and many of them misdiagnose the ailment as multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease, or other maladies.

Stewart said Florida restaurants are not legally required to print or communicate “country of origin” or pre-cautionary fish product information. Stewart wishes that would change.

According to the Florida Department of Health’s website, there is no FDA-approved test kit for Ciguatera, although it is the Number One reported seafood poisoning worldwide with up to five million cases per year, based on under-reporting estimates found by Stewart.

Experts recommend eating fish that originally weighed less than four to six pounds, that were originally smaller than a regular dinner plate, and that are cold-water “free swimmers” versus coral reef fishes and fishes from warm waters.

For general safety, off the consumption list comes Florida’s groupers, sea bass, snappers, barracuda, jacks, mackerel and triggerfish, and nearly 400 more species of fish from Florida and around the globe.

Neither Whiskey Joe’s Bar and Grill in Tampa nor its parent company could be reached for comment.

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