Scott James, a columnist for the local San Francisco publication The Bay Citizen, comments on a gap in the food supply safety net.
To date, there are no requirements for restaurants to report when diners are affected by food-borne illnesses — even when large numbers of people get sick. James points out that this constitutes a huge gap in the food supply safety net.
In December, at the Italian eatery Delfina, one of the Bay Area’s best restaurants, about two dozen patrons were sickened by food poisoning.
The staff determined what each victim ate, and since a vegetarian was among those sickened, oysters, beef tartar and other foods were eliminated as the sources of illness. “We narrowed things down to the most common denominator,” Craig Stoll, Delfina’s co-owner and chef said. They concluded tainted produce, most likely salad greens as the culprit.
James indicates the restaurant contacted its suppliers, but no alert went out to the public, and there was no government investigation. The San Francisco Department of Public Health had not heard of the incident until contacted by The Bay Citizen.
“They [restaurants] are not obligated to report it,” said Richard Lee, director of environmental health regulatory programs for the city.
And James notes that according to the California Department of Public Health, mandatory reporting is not required at the state level either. Under both state and local laws, reporting is required only when restaurant workers become sick.
Rajiv Bhatia, the city’s director of environmental health, believes reporting of potential outbreaks should be mandatory for supermarkets, restaurants, schools and workplace cafeterias, even though this is not a requirement under current law,” he said.
In his new book, “The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age,” Nathan Wolfe, a visiting professor in human biology at Stanford University and director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative in San Francisco, writes that many illnesses, including viruses, make the jump to humans from animals when used for food, with transmission possible during hunting, butchering or consumption.
James claims early detection in treating and containing outbreaks is next to impossible in an increasingly interconnected and complex food chain.
“With the advent of processed meats,” Wolfe wrote in the book, “a single hot dog at a baseball game can consist of multiple species (pig, turkey, cattle) and contain meat derived from hundreds of animals.” Typical meat eaters “will consume bits of millions of animals in their lifetimes.”
529 Sickened at The Fat Duck
In 2009, people became sick after eating at Heston Blumenthal’s three Michelin starred UK restaurant The fat Duck. The restaurant was initially closed at the end of February pending investigations by environmental health officers after initial complaints that more than 40 people became ill.
But soon afterwards 400-500 hundred more came forward complaining of the same symptoms from late January through February. In all a total of 529 people report illnesses related to eating at The Fat Duck.
The restaurant reopened in March of that year despite UK Health Protection Agency officials claiming they still did not know what caused the mysterious outbreak.
Then in September 2009, the Guardian reported that according to an official report, the illnesses were probably caused by raw shellfish contaminated with human sewage.
Their findings established that diners were infected by the norovirus bug, brought into the restaurant through contaminated shellfish, and inspectors criticized food safety standards in the kitchens.
The HPA report, published in full on the government agency’s website, claimed “oysters were served raw; razor clams may not have been appropriately handled or cooked; tracing of shellfish to source showed evidence of contamination and there have been reports of illness in other establishments associated with oysters from the same source.”
The Guardian noted the report also found that “several weaknesses” in procedures at the restaurant may have contributed to continuing transmission, including a delayed response to the outbreak of the virus and staff working when they should have been off sick.
Inspectors also found that the restaurant may have been using the wrong environmental cleaning products.
Questions were also raised over the time it took for the agency to learn about the outbreak: “Delays in notification of illness may have affected the ability of the investigation to identify the exact reason for the norovirus contamination.”