Fancy food ain’t safe food: NY Swan Club edition

Several clues point to the highly contagious norovirus as the mystery culprit that may have sickened more than 100 weekend guests at the Swan Club, leading county health officials to shut it down temporarily, the Roslyn catering hall’s owner said.

SwanClub2The Swan Club, which has been around for decades, has served as the backdrop to many GOP dinners and fundraisers, and owner Bobby Sidana worries the outbreak has damaged his business’ reputation. He received 300 calls Wednesday, most of them customers who support him.

He said he contacted health officials Monday as soon as guests notified him about gastrointestinal problems. The health department has ordered his staff to undergo tests, including for norovirus, he said, and will be looking at the facilities of the club’s food purveyors.

“We said just come in and do a full inspection here,” Sidana said. “We don’t want to take a chance with safety.”

Throwing stones from Haaarvaaard: The cost of a sick customer

Harvard picked an easy target, offering its management insight to Chipotle, but I’ve yet to see a paper about how the venerable Haaarvaaard Faculty Club managed to sicken patrons not once, but twice with Norovirus in 2010.

simpsons.harvardAccording to PR from Haaarvaaard, Chipotle has seen its shares tumble and recently reported its first-ever quarterly loss after the incident, which began in October when more than 50 people in 11 states were sickened by an initial E. coli outbreak.

The chain restaurant, which uses the tagline “Food with Integrity,” has prided itself on avoiding artificial ingredients, opting instead to use a relatively short supply chain of local growers for many of its ingredients.

That strategy just might have been part of its problem, says John A. Quelch, the Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and Professor in Health Policy and Management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Quelch, who teaches a course to Harvard business and public health students called Consumers, Corporations and Public Health, says food safety is more challenging than ever for three reasons:

  • the globalization of the food business;
  • global food safety standards are lacking; and,
  • food safety problems can be quite costly.

Thanks for the insight. Back to hockey.

Yes Virginia, even scientists get Norovirus

The New Mexican reports more than 30 top scientists attending a symposium in Santa Fe earlier this month were sickened in an outbreak of Norovirus.

santa.barf_sprout_raw_milk(7)The conference at the Hilton Santa Fe Historic Plaza hotel drew 251 people, including participants from the University of California-Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as various prestigious biomedical research centers here and abroad.

And unfortunately between 30 and 40 of them experienced sudden bouts of vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps, according to the state health department.

One person went to the hospital, another to urgent care, but no one was hospitalized and nobody had complications.

The cause is undetermined and might remain so, said David Selvage, bureau chief for the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Bureau.

Keystone Symposia on Molecular and Cellular Biology, which hosted the event, is a nonprofit that convenes peer-reviewed conferences across a range of life sciences. It’s a regular visitor to Santa Fe and plans other conferences in the city later this year and in 2017. The one that opened May 2 was titled “Epigenetic and Metabolic Regulation of Aging and Aging-Related Diseases.”

The Hilton notified the health department and took immediate precautions by ordering in food for the symposium from outside vendors, even though there was no determination that the source of the norovirus was the hotel kitchen.

“They really wanted to do the right thing and did,” Selvage said.

In fact, because there were no other complaints from other hotel guests, Selvage suspects the origin was something else — person-to-person transmission or a food item shared by many people at the symposium. “If it was a food handler, you would expect other groups attending events there to become ill and we didn’t see that,” he said.

The health department, he said, collected three specimens from people attending the conference and the state lab reported May 10 that all were positive for norovirus.

The state lab does not have a test for determining the presence of norovirus in food.

96 sickened with stomach flu at San Jose school

Not sure of the basis for this policy, but a San Jose elementary school was keeping children indoors all day Friday to stop the spread of stomach flu.

norovirus-resized-600.jpgIn a matter of weeks, 90 students and six employees at Horace Mann Elementary School have caught the virus.

It began April 29, when a student started vomiting in a classroom. Since then, more and more students have gotten sick.

The health department has ordered a complete wipe down of the facilities to stop the outbreak.

“They closed off the drinking fountain, they’ve closed off the bathroom, they’ve cleaned everything… even the posts at the school,” said parent Bethany Lewis.

Despite the sunny forecast and warm temperatures Friday, the school was on a rainy day schedule where all the kids are indoors all day, including lunch and recess.

The district calls it “social distancing,” where they limit the contact between students to try and stop the spread of germs.

On Friday, they got another six cases reported, pushing the total to 96.

22 New Rochelle, NY 8th-graders stricken by Norovirus during class trip to DC

22 eighth-grade students from Isaac E. Young Middle School in New Rochelle become violently ill during the last night of a class trip to Washington, D.C.

norovirus-2The suspicion is that students may have contracted the virus earlier that evening at restaurant or on a boat during a ferry ride. The first students began vomiting shortly after 9 p.m. with the virus continuing to spread throughout the night. School Principal Dr. Anthony Bongo said that based on a preliminary report it appears the students were infected with Norovirus

Bongo said that he worked with Dr. Weiss, the school district’s medical officer and the Westchester County Department of Health to coordinate information with GWU Hospital. “Parents of children on the trip have been kept informed by on-site staff every step of the way, and all students are safe,” said a school district spokesperson. 22 students were hospitalized. Most were released soon after but 10 remained at the hospital to be treated for dehydration. Six teachers and two chaperons worked hard throughout the night to care for the sick students, said Dr. Anthony Bongo.

40 sick: Tourism breakfast hosts Norovirus outbreak

The Door County, Wisc. tourism breakfast event held on Tuesday, May 3 resulted in 40 of the 117 attendees and employees at the Sandpiper Restaurant at Maxwelton Braes in Baileys Harbor stricken with Norovirus.

sandpiper3.20356Following the protocols required for a Norovirus outbreak, the restaurant has taken precautions to sanitize surfaces that may have come into contact with this virus, the Door County Public Health Department said in a news release. The establishment has since opened and continues to operate without further incident.

Fairytale #4: ‘No one has ever gotten sick here before’ 42 stricken with noro at wedding in Jersey

Press of Atlantic City reports the Cape May County and state health departments are investigating reports of an illness that affected dozens of people who attended a wedding at the Flanders Hotel last month.

fairy_puke_rainbow_by_lu_tih-d6mpm8qKevin Thomas, public health coordinator for the county, said Monday that 42 of 150 guests were confirmed to have fallen ill a day or two after the April 30 wedding.

“No one has ever gotten sick here before,” said Karen Bergman, catering director for the Flanders. “We’re very careful. We play by the rules. We take pride in what we do.”

Food poisoning and norovirus are the likeliest reasons for the outbreak, Thomas said, although it is possible no definitive cause will be identified.

“We find no fault with the Flanders,” said Lois Marcasciano, mother of the bride. “It was a flukey thing that people got sick. I would go back there again. I would have another wedding there.”

But will it make fewer people barf? Chipotle hires more food safety expertise

Reuters reports that David Acheson, a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and David Theno, a food safety consultant and former Jack in the Box executive who is credited with fixing food safety at the fast-food chain following a deadly E. coli outbreak in the 1990s, have joined the payroll at Chipotle Mexican Grill.

chipotle.burrito.vomitThey join James Marsden, a former meat science professor at Kansas State University, and Mansour Samadpour, chief executive of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group.

That’s a lot of egos in one sandbox.

Or as friend of the barfblog, Don Schaffner, a food science professor at Rutgers University, told Reuters,“If I had to put together a dream team to fix something, you could do a lot worse,” But, he added, “I’ve begun to wonder a little bit about too many cooks. Each of those guys is going to have a perspective on what to do to fix the problem.”

Spokesman Chris Arnold confirmed the consultants were retained last year but would not say when or detail their duties. He did say Marsden, as executive director of food safety, would have “primary responsibility for our food safety programs.”

Expanding its complement of food safety experts is part of Chipotle’s effort to rebound from a spate of disease outbreaks – including E. coli, salmonella and norovirus – last year that crushed sales, repulsed customers and slashed $6 billion off its market valuation.

“We have committed to establishing Chipotle as an industry leader in food safety, and we have assembled an extremely capable team to help us achieve that goal,” Arnold told Reuters.

chipotle_ad_2Chipotle declined to make members of the team available for interviews.

Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, said he expected the group’s focus “would likely be more on food safety preventive controls and less on food testing.”

Chipotle’s initial response emphasized testing ingredients for pathogens with the goal of stopping any source of illness from getting into its restaurants.

Acheson criticized the Chipotle for relying too heavily on that one approach. “I’m not a believer that you can test your way to safety,” he told Reuters in early December.

At the time, he said the focus should be on improving food sourcing and handling practices, including how suppliers are approved, “how they are leveraged in terms of training, storing, handling, and preparing of food.”

Arnold said Chipotle continues to work with the IEH testing firm. Its more recent changes have focused on food preparation. For instance, Chipotle said on its latest earnings call that it had started blanching bell peppers in an effort to kill germs.

family.guy.diarrheaThe chain also has cut some small suppliers. Kenter Canyon Farms said it lost business providing oregano to Chipotle through a third-party distributor.

“When that whole scandal happened with the E. coli, when they revamped their food safety. They cut ties with a lot of growers,” said Mark Lopez, sales director for the farm.

Chipotle’s Arnold said the chain would continue to support smaller farms, and has committed to spending $10 million to help them meet its standards. But he said the company has noted that it may be difficult for “some of our smaller suppliers to meet our heightened food safety standards.”

Cutting cantaloupe and blaming consumers: Food safety starts on the farm

In 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture very publicly began to urge consumers to use an accurate food thermometer when cooking ground beef patties because research demonstrated that the color of meat is not a reliable indicator of safety.

cantaloupe.half_.sep_.12USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety at the time, Catherine Woteki, said, “Consumers need to know that the only way to be sure a ground beef patty is cooked to a high enough temperature to destroy any harmful bacteria that may be present is to use a thermometer.”

At the time, I said, no one uses a meat thermometer to check the doneness of hamburgers. The idea of picking up a hamburger patty with tongs and inserting the thermometer in sideways was too much effort (others insist the best way to use a tip sensitive digital thermometer is to insert into the middle of the patty at a 45 degree angle).

I was wrong.

Shortly thereafter, I started doing it and discovered, not only was using a meat thermometer fairly easy, it made me a better cook. No more burgers resembling hockey pucks, overcooked to ensure dangerous pathogens were gone. They tasted better.

By May 2000, USDA launched a national consumer campaign to promote the use of food thermometers in the home. The campaign featured an infantile mascot called Thermy who proclaimed, “It’s Safe to Bite When the Temperature is Right.”

Almost two decades later and I have the fervor of a born-again thermometerist, distributing them to friends, one meal at a time.

Sometime in the mid-2000s, in light of on-going outbreaks involving cantaloupe (rock melon) USDA started recommending that consumers wash the exterior to prevent dangerous microorganisms on the surface of the cantaloupe from coming into contact with the inner flesh.

I was not convinced.

And remain unconvinced (see video, below, from 2009).

cantaloupe.salmonella_0.featuredWhat is important that as soon as cantaloupe is chopped or cut in half, it needs to be kept cold (which is why it is disconcerting at markets and megalomarts in Australia and elsewhere to see melons sliced in half, wrapped in plastic and sitting at ambient temperature, which can be a tad warm in Brisbane).

A new study compared two cantaloupe cutting methods and concluded that it’s best to limit contact with pathogens on the farm.

Whole and cut cantaloupes have been implicated as vehicles in foodborne illness outbreaks of norovirus, salmonellosis, and listeriosis. Preparation methods that minimize pathogen transfer from external surfaces to the edible tissue are needed.

Two preparation methods were compared for the transfer of Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium LT2, murine norovirus, and Tulane virus from inoculated cantaloupe rinds to edible tissueand preparation surfaces.

For the first method, cantaloupes were cut into eighths, and edible tissue was separated from the rind and cubed with the same knife used to open the cantaloupes. For the second method, cantaloupes were scored with a knife around the circumference sufficient to allow manual separation of the cantaloupes into halves. Edible tissue was scooped with a spoon and did not contact the preparation surface touched by the rind. Bacteria and virus were recovered from the rinds, preparation surfaces, and edible tissue and enumerated by culture methods and reverse transcription, quantitative PCR, respectively. Standard plate counts were determined throughout refrigerated storage of cantaloupe tissue.

Cut method 2 yielded approximately 1 log lower recovery of L. monocytogenes and Salmonella Typhimurium from edible tissue, depending on the medium in which the bacteria were inoculated. A slight reduction was observed in murine norovirus recovered from edible tissue by cut method 2. The Tulane virus was detected in approximately half of the sampled cantaloupe tissue and only at very low levels. Aerobic mesophilic colony counts were lower through day 6 of storage for buffered peptone water–inoculated cantaloupes prepared by cut method 2. No differences were observed in environmental contamination as a function of cutting method.

Although small reductions in contamination of edible tissue were observed for cut method 2, the extent of microbial transfer underscores the importance of preventing contamination of whole cantaloupes.

Transfer of pathogens from cantaloupe rind to preparation surfaces and edible tissue as a function of cutting method

Journal of Food Protection®, Number 5, May 2016, pp. 696-889, pp. 764-770(7)

Shearer, Adrienne E. H.; LeStrange, Kyle; Castañeda Saldaña, Rafael; Kniel, Kalmia E.

252 sick: Noro cruise docks in Maine

Federal health officials say the first cruise ship to dock in Portland, Maine, this season is under surveillance for norovirus.

chapman.vomitThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 27 percent of the passengers aboard the Balmoral — operated by the Fred Olsen Cruises — have gotten sick since the cruise began April 16.

The ship and all aboard have since left Portland, according to police Lieutenant Robert Doherty.

The CDC reports that 252 of the 919 passengers on the Balmoral have fallen ill, as well as eight crew members.

Fred Olsen Cruises did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

So far this year, there have been 10 outbreaks of norovirus on cruise ships, according to the CDC.