As the stench of backed-up sewage permeated the restaurant, a West Philadelphia McDonald's continued selling Big Macs, Quarter Pounders, and fries over four days last fall, installing porta-potties in the parking lot but never notifying the city, which would have ordered a closure.
A complaint led the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to dispatch an inspector to the franchise at 52d Street and Columbia Avenue on Sept. 15. She found ruptured plumbing in both restrooms and "smelled sewage throughout the facility."
"The Person in Charge failed to notify the Department of an imminent health hazard and cease operations. Establishment has been operating with raw sewage backup for at least 4 days," La'Sandra Malone-Mesfin wrote in her report. She listed 24 violations, four of which were related to the plumbing.
There is no evidence that any customers or employees got sick, although most cases of food-borne illness go unreported nationwide.
Raw sewage in a restaurant is "a very high-risk situation," said Caroline Johnson, disease-control director for the city health department, who was talking generally.
"By design, a sewage line removes the nastiest, filthiest things from a food establishment," said Janice Buchanon, an official at Steritech, a national brand-protection company that specializes in food safety. A common component, she said, would be E. coli 0157, which can cause serious illness and lead to kidney failure in children.
"That the restaurant would continue to operate for even one day is beyond belief," she said.
The inspector spent two hours at the franchise in the Parkside section, according to her report, and asked the establishment to immediately shut down, which it did.
"Regrettably, the old sewer line connected to this six-year-old restaurant failed," said John Dawkins, the franchise owner. "I agreed that the best thing to do was to close the restaurant while we undertook significant repairs."
Dawkins, whose Jo-Dan Enterprises owns nine McDonald's around the region, did not respond to questions about why the restaurant had not closed earlier or notified the city health department, as required by law.
But he said in an e-mail that he had instructed his employees to immediately shut down if "a situation such as this" ever occurs again.
Four days after the restaurant was closed, a follow-up inspection by the city found that the plumbing was working, and management was given the go-ahead to reopen.
The city took no further action.
"We do not impose fines or penalties, and we do not have the authority to do so," said Jeff Moran, spokesman for the city health department.
"Most health departments use closure of a facility as the most punitive action they can take," said Buchanon, the Steritech official, who formerly worked as a restaurant inspector in various cities. The restaurants "lose face, have to explain to all the customers why they were closed, and lose revenue for a number of days."
But she and others expressed surprise that the city had to find out about the sewage leak from a complaint.
"I don't understand why the management didn't immediately shut down the restaurant," said Don Schaffner, a professor of microbiology at Rutgers University who also sits on McDonald's Food Safety Advisory Council. "Not only is it disgusting, it's a real risk. You can't operate with nonfunctioning sewage lines."
Bill Marler, a lawyer in Seattle who specializes in food-borne-illness cases, called the leak, as described to him by a reporter, "an outbreak waiting to happen."
"How lucky they are they didn't poison a bunch of people," he said.
Marler said he, too, was surprised that McDonald's Corp. did not take action against the local franchise. "It's a breach on 10 different levels. That's the kind of thing corporate headquarters should be jumping all over," he said.
A corporate spokeswoman for McDonald's declined to comment on specifics of the West Philadelphia case but said in a statement said that its independently owned restaurants - the vast majority - are required to adhere to all applicable local, state and federal guidelines.
"When an issue is brought to light, action is taken to address it," said Terri Hickey, the spokeswoman.
She would not elaborate on what form of action the chain took in this case, if any.
Search for inspection reports of all city food establishments at www.philly.com/CleanPlates.
The West Philadelphia McDonald's reports are at http://bit.ly/18MvHVX EndText