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Even the world’s best eatery isn’t immune

3 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

It seems like most of the time when we hear about foodborne-illness outbreaks tied to restaurants, they’re linked to lower-priced chain eateries. So, when the Copenhagen eatery dubbed the world’s best restaurant three years running reports an outbreak of norovirus that sickened 63 guests at last count, the media takes notice.

News reports abounded about Noma’s outbreak last month of norovirus, an easily transmitted disease “that is rarely fatal but that causes millions of cases of severe gastroenteritis each year,” according to Time. Norovirus causes about 20 million U.S. cases annually, and this year may turn out worse with the spread of a new strain called GII 4 Sydney, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The first hint of the Copenhagen outbreak came on Feb. 14, when a Danish couple e-mailed the restaurant, known for its locally sourced Nordic cuisine, to say they had become sick after eating there. Ultimately that week, 63 of the restaurants 435 guests that week fell ill. “It was a cocktail of different noroviruses brought into the kitchen by an [unsuspecting] employee. Because of poor hand hygiene, the food was contaminated,” Bjorn Wirlander, head of control and enforcement at the Danish food authorities, told the Financial Times. “Noma could have also prevented some of the cases if they had read e-mails [from customers] in time,” he said.

The news brought a storm of negative press, including several incorrect reports ranging from details on the size of the eatery and the age of famed chef Rene Redzepi to more serious informational errors. After a health inspection revealed that the water in one of four sinks wasn’t hot enough, one publication erroneously reported that there was no hot water in the entire restaurant — this in an eatery that takes health and safety so seriously it brings in a doctor to administer flu shots and sends employees home for 48 hours at the first hint of sickness.

Noma fought back against the growing public relations storm, issuing statements to clear up the facts, as Eater reported Monday. On Friday, Managing Director Peter Kreiner issued a statement expressing the restaurant’s regrets about the episode and detailing the steps the restaurant took in conjunction with the Danish Food & Drug Administration, steps that included additional deep cleanings and conversations with the customers affected by the outbreak.

The restaurant seems to have done everything right to address the issue, from transparency about the problem to going public with its efforts to handle the problem, but only time will tell whether the efforts are enough to appease patrons who pay $260 for Redzepi’s tasting menu.

“Food hygiene is the one thing that every restaurant has got to get right,” David Moore, owner of Pied a Terre and L’Autre Pied in London, said in an interview with Bloomberg. “It doesn’t matter what end of the market you’re in, it’s got to be perfect. Your customers’ health is at stake, and so is your reputation.”

Still, there are signs loyal customers won’t be too put off. A fact sheet posted by Eater said, “When the first results came in, indicating norovirus, the guests were informed and subsequently offered either to come back for a new dinner of have a refund. A number of guests have already accepted the offer to return to Noma.”

Has your restaurants dealt with a foodborne-illness outbreak? How did you handle it, and how long did it take for life to return to normal?