If you're eating right now, stop– especially if you're eating in a restaurant; this week's topic, food poisoning and food-borne diseases, isn't likely to enhance your appetite.
And before we plunge in, allow me a rueful chuckle as I reflect on the fleeting moment, sometime last week, when I thought this would be a relatively easy column to write. The more I explored the subject, however, the more confusing it got, and I soon discarded any illusions that the incident would be easy to discuss.
Now, after a fair amount of research and reflection, I've come up with an action plan for consumers who suspect they've eaten contaminated restaurant food, one that focuses on the solution without allowing accusations, denial, or both to strain an already difficult situation.
This week, contrary to this column’s usual policy, the business involved will remain anonymous. There's no way to prove that the restaurant was guilty of improper food handling or poor employee hygiene, and even suggesting something so inflammatory could be a serious blow to its reputation. And since I'm not naming the restaurant, there's no need to name the complaining consumers, either.
Here's what happened. Four women went to a restaurant one weeknight in January and shared an appetizer, tuna carpaccio, which can roughly be described as "tuna tartare." Each then had a separate entree.
Seven hours later, two of the women awoke with stomach cramps and diarrhea. One recovered quickly; the other's symptoms persisted for two weeks. At that point her doctor suggested giardia, a parasite usually spread via feces-contaminated food or water, and prescribed a hefty course of antibiotics that she says was "almost as bad" as the disease. She recovered.
The morning after the dinner party, a chef friend urged her to call the restaurant. She claims that the manager refused to give her name and handled the situation in a somewhat cavalier manner. Although it sounds like the manager doesn't deserve kudos for that, I'm also not going to dwell here on the customer-service aspect; instead I'll focus on how a consumer can proceed regardless of the restaurant's response.
My first clue that this would be a complicated affair came when I learned that, almost certainly, the consumer– let's call her Emily– couldn't have been exposed to giardia at the restaurant. According to internet research, three days is the shortest incubation time on record for giardia, and Emily was sick within seven hours of eating.
Richard Guerrant, chief of UVA’s Division of Geographic and International Medicine, agrees it was extremely unlikely that Emily's giardia could have come from her restaurant meal, and suggested several other possibilities, among them a staph infection. UVA gastroenterologist Steven Bickston agrees that staph could be responsible for such a quick onset of symptoms.
What about the fact that the second woman got sick, too? Guerrant points out that the two could have shared a so-called Norwalk virus that had nothing to do with their restaurant meal (this happened, of course, in the thick of flu season).
What if an employee's hands were contaminated with E. coli when he prepared the tuna dish, and that caused the women’s problems? Finally, what about the two women who weren’t affected? Some possibilities are that they either avoided exposure, have stronger immune systems, or that Emily and her friend weren’t infected by something they ate that night. A stool culture– which Emily’s doctor failed to get– would have been helpful. Absent that, there's no way, now, to pin down exactly what happened.
Now for the conclusions I've drawn after talking with Eric Myers, who is an environmental health specialist at the Jefferson Area Health Department. First, if you get sick after eating a restaurant meal, don't hesitate to call the health department; your information may provide warning of a possible outbreak.
Next, call the restaurant. If they're ethical, they'll want to get the details so that they can investigate. But don't expect to get terrific customer service; the person you're talking to is likely to go on the defensive. Just stick to the facts.
Myers advises the consumer to call a doctor if he or she is having difficulty “maintaining body fluids” because of vomiting or diarrhea, as that can signal dehydration, which can be lethal. You might not want to let the situation get to that point, however, before calling your physician.
Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902.