Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Can you imagine any restaurant charging Rs 10000 for a meal and Rs 7000 for an 'a la carte' service in India? There is a restaurant in UK located in Berkshire which is normally deluged with customers for their mouth watering offerings. This restaurant was touted as the best eating place in the world in 2005. Unfortunately they got more publicity internationally for the food 'poisoning' episode in February 2009 when 529 customers became ill after consuming the food served by this eating joint. Though the management has the responsibility to ensure the safety of its customers, situations like this do develop unexpectedly is spite of a slew of precautions taken by such high end public eateries. Probably this could be a wake up call for the food service industry to be more alert to preempt such calamities affecting the unsuspecting customers who put complete trust on them to safeguard their health.

The Berkshire episode was attributed to transmission of viral infection from workers who were carrying them during handling of foods at the restaurant, though food poisoning was first suspected. Norovirus causes stomach flu or gastroenteritis, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps, lasting for a couple of days. Detailed investigations revealed that six of the staff members and eight of the diners tested positive for Norovirus infection which is much less serious than food poisoning. Norovirus infection spreads through eating faecally contaminated foods, touching contaminated surfaces, putting hands in the mouth or direct contact with an infected person. It is a tribute to the management that they were able to get to the root of the problem, take remedial measures and reopen the restaurant in about two weeks' time.

Norovirus, an RNA virus, earlier known as Norwalk virus because of the first known outbreak occurring in Norwalk, Ohio, USA in 1968, accounts for almost 90% of epidemic non-bacterial gastroenteritis around the world, affecting people of all ages. Individuals with 'O' type blood are more vulnerable to Norovirus infection while 'B' and 'AB' types confer partial protection against symptomatic infection which generally occurs in closed communities like long term care facilities, hospitals, prisons, dormitories, cruise ships etc. Also known as stomach flu or winter vomiting disease, the biggest epidemic occurred in UK in 2007-08 when 3 million people were infected with Norovirus. Since it does not cause serious damage, unless the affected person has weak immune system, only around 300 deaths are reported world-wide, though about a million people cases are known to occur each year. According to WHO, the best precaution against spread of Norovirus infection is washing hands as frequently as possible so that the level of contamination is reduced continuously. Each infected person can transmit the disease to 14 people on an average. Since this virus particle has no lipid envelop, it is practically immune to action by alcohol and detergents, though chlorine based disinfectants are very effective against this vector.

Shell-fish and salad ingredients are most often implicated in Norovirus episodes. Fat Duck restaurant serves eccentric delicacies like snail porridge, salmon poached in licorice gel, scrambled egg and bacon on ice cream and investigation has not been able to find out which foods were responsible for transmitting the infection. Allowing infected workers with fever above 100 F, with minor noticeable symptoms, could have caused the foods served, to get infected and pass on the same to the customers. It is imperative that besides scrupulous hygiene parameters being maintained as a part of any safety regime, the food service industry must pay more attention to the health of the workers who handle food, through regular check up and close monitoring to prevent Norovirus and similar infection of the foods prepared and served that can cause serious consequences to their patrons and compromise seriously their own credibility.


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