It’s still unclear whether a pathogen or mere speculation is to blame for tainting salad greens after a foodborne illness swept through a San Francisco company in December.
Of 50 diners at a Dec. 10 private party at Delfina Restaurant in the city’s Mission district, about half reported symptoms consistent with food poisoning within two days, according to a statement from the restaurant.
Many or all were employees of the company, which Delfina did not name.
Because a vegetarian was sickened, the restaurant inferred meats and seafood were not causes. Delfina narrowed it down to three suspect menu items but did not notified suppliers. No recall was involved.
The restaurant didn’t answer The Packer’s query about those items. A story in the Bay Citizen, picked up by The New York Times, said they were tainted produce, probably salad greens. From there it spread through the Internet.
If we’re talking inference and probability, that means nobody knows. By mid-January, public health officials had not determined a cause.
That’s because the pathogen — whatever its origin — spread more efficiently and reliably than information. About three weeks passed before the San Francisco Department of Public Health first heard of the incident — from a journalist.
That’s unusual for foodborne illness in such numbers. One or more consumers or health care providers typically come forward.
“We never got a complaint from anyone involved,” said Richard Lee, director of the Environmental Health regulatory program at the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
“After contacting the Department of Health, we decided not to report it since it was a contained, isolated incident,” Delfina said in its statement.
Delfina is right; damage was limited. There was no outbreak in the city, unless similar episodes also went unreported.
But how contained and isolated can this be if we end up reading about it in The New York Times, yet remain in the dark about what happened? The business tried to get on top of the story this way, but it got on top of them.
The restaurant fully cooperated with health officials, even if it was not a fount of information initially. But this and other businesses aren’t required to report such incidents to the city or the state of California. That mandate applies only when illness strikes restaurant workers.
Lee’s boss — Rajiv Bhatia, the city department’s director of Occupational and Environmental Health — is on record supporting legislation to require restaurants, supermarkets, schools and workplace cafeterias to report consumer illness.
The gap between contamination and public health involvement didn’t serve clarity about its cause.
“It’s harder after a few weeks have passed,” Lee said. “Delfina figured out some things but we’re not going to comment til we finish our investigation. It’s not even clear that it happened at the restaurant. It could have happened in the workplace.”
Delfina seemed certain.
“(We) take full responsibility and are truly sorry to be the cause of their discomfort,” its statement said.
From that, I assume the restaurant had reason to fall on its sword. But perhaps it did so prematurely.
There’s a difference between offering information and offering a confession.
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