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Restaurants battle wave of food-borne illness

Restaurants say they've invested millions of dollars into systems and training to ensure food is safe and cut the rate of food-borne illness. But the industry suddenly finds itself fighting outbreaks at three national chains.
Customers are shown outside an Olive Garden restaurant in Burbank,California
Olive Garden is among the restaurant chains that have been hit by a wave of food-borne illness over the past several weeks. This outlet is in Burbank,Calif.Fred Prouser / Reuters file
/ Source: contributor

Three years ago, an ambulance rushed Richard Miller to the hospital, where he had an emergency liver transplant after contracting Hepatitis A from a special dinner platter at Chi-Chi’s restaurant in Beaver, Pa. So the recent food illness outbreaks at Taco Bell, Taco John’s and Olive Garden restaurants hit him hard.

"It’s sort of like, 'Oh no, not again,'" said Miller, 60. "There needs to be more regulation of the food supply."

Some 76 million people get sick from food-borne illnesses each year, and about 5,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That said, the nation's 935,000 restaurants are expected to serve 70 billion meals this year, according to the National Restaurant Association, and outbreaks for most major food-borne illnesses have declined by an average of 40 percent between 1996 and 2005 — with a few exceptions.

Vibrio infections, caused by contaminated raw or undercooked shellfish such as oysters, clams, mussels or crabs, climbed 41 percent.Restaurants say they've invested millions of dollars into systems and training to ensure food is safe.

"It's something they take very seriously, and they realize this is a tremendous responsibility," said Donna Garren, vice president of health, safety and regulatory affairs for the National Restaurant Association.

The organization offers training and certification on food safety, and this fall, on the heels of an outbreak of spinach-related E. coli, it created a new produce safety group that will come up with safety requirements in farming, harvesting, manufacturing, packing and processing fresh fruit and vegetables.

“It’s definitely top of mind,” said Boyd Hoback, president of Good Times Restaurants, a Golden, Colo.-based burger chain with 49 restaurants. The chain has employed aggressive food safety systems and training for workers and hires a third-party laboratory to regularly test food samples.

Good Times has not had a food-borne illness outbreak in its 20-year history, and Hoback knows that if the chain did, it “could absolutely kill our business.”

Taco Bell, which saw 71 people sickened this month due to E. coli bacteria in lettuce, is among the chains hoping to regain consumer confidence. The company has taken out full-page ads in major newspapers and launched a TV campaign in which Taco Bell President Greg Creed outlines the company's commitment to food safety.

The chain has stepped up its inspections of food, doubled its rate of testing for ingredients, created a toll-free line for consumers and hired a food safety specialist to help with inspections and to coordinate larger industry discussions.

"We're all in this together," said Will Bortz, a Taco Bell spokesman. "Let's figure out how to address a fix for it."

Olive Garden applied a special cleaning agent to sanitize its Indianapolis-area restaurant following an outbreak of norovirus last week that sickened about 370 people. The restaurant reopened Tuesday. Olive Garden spokesman Steve Coe said health officials do not know and may never know the exact cause of the outbreak, which was caused by a virus passed through the hands rather than bacteria from food.

Taco John’s also is struggling to recover from an outbreak in which three dozen people became ill this month from E. coli contamination. The Cheyenne, Wyo.-based chain fired its produce supplier and says its food is safe but still has seen significant sales drops at many of its restaurants, said Brian Dixon, spokesman for the 430-restaurant chain.

The size of a restaurant or chain has nothing to do with the risks of illness, said Douglas Powell, scientific director of the Food Safety Network at Kansas State University. People can get sick from a neighborhood restaurant just as easily as at a major national chain.

As with Olive Garden’s norovirus outbreak, the culprit can be as simple as a few sick workers. For Taco John’s and Taco Bell’s E. coli contaminations, the problems can be traced back to farms.

“Know your suppliers,” said Powell. “And if you have sick employees, get them away from there.”

Still, it’s fairly easy for lax chefs and kitchen workers to make diners sick, said Mark Facklam, a former chef at the Tremont Hotel in Chicago who is director of culinary arts at the Illinois Institute of Arts.

Chefs are trained to be vigilant about proper hand washing, safe food storage and processes to heat and cool food to avoid microbial growth. Bacteria grow quickly in food between 40 degrees and 140 degrees, so for a kitchen to serve day-old soup, workers must cool the soup quickly and wrap it properly, ensure the refrigerator is cold enough and that the soup is later reheated to the boiling point, Facklam said.

“The public is smart to be concerned about this,” said Facklam. He said many people probably suffer food poisoning and without even realizing it. “People think they drank too much, they got the stomach flu or they ate something too rich,” he said.

E. coli may not manifest itself for several days, and Hepatitis A may not show symptoms for months.

Pat Kendall, food safety specialist at Colorado State University, is more optimistic:  “I don’t think consumers should be that concerned, but they should pay attention to cleanliness,” she said. A good rule of thumb: A dirty bathroom in a restaurant may be a bad sign, especially if there’s no soap and paper towels.

“If it’s dirty where you see it, just think what it’s like where you don’t,” said Facklam, the chef.  Pay attention to inspection notices posted in stores and online in some cities and states, Facklam said, and also be wary if employees look disheveled and dirty, if food is sitting out on counters and if the indoor garbage area is dirty and attracts flies.

Miller, who takes 12 medications a day and still suffers from brain damage from his near-death experience with Hepatitis A, still dines out.  There are always risks, he said.

“We’re rather particular of the restaurants we go to,” he said. “But people should be just as concerned with what they buy at the grocery store as in a restaurant.”