Can This Popular Restaurant Survive a Salmonella Outbreak?

Restaurants must be proactive to handle a salmonella outbreak

After two trips to an urgent care clinic and three days in a hospital, Amanda Devian’s bout with Salmonella was just getting started.

On Sept. 7, she enjoyed a meal of mushroom croquette and Chilean Sea Bass at Fig & Olive in West Hollywood. She was sick the next day, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Almost 10 days later she was released from the hospital. Now, she’s one of several people filing lawsuits against Fig & Olive restaurants in LA and Washington, D.C., for making them sick.

No one has officially identified the food that made people sick but several news reports point to dishes containing truffle oil, including mushroom croquettes. Since outbreaks were reported in LA and D.C., other states with Fig & Olive restaurants are reporting Salmonella cases. Fig & Olive has a restaurant in Chicago and several in New York.

Serving contaminated food is a restaurant’s worst nightmare. It spells the end for some. Before the outbreak, Fig & Olive had a good reputation as a high-end establishment. As long as they can afford to persevere and win back public trust, they may follow the path of other restaurants that survived outbreaks.

Every year, about 48 million Americans are sickened by foodborne diseases, like Salmonella – very unpleasant bacteria that infect a person’s gastrointestinal tract. It’s transmitted by food contaminated with animal feces or handled by an infected worker. It’s killed by heat, which is why regulations require food, such as meat, be cooked to a certain internal temperature.

Bill Marler of Marler Clark – a law firm that specializes in foodborne illness cases – said he represents more than 20 people suing Fig & Olive in LA and D.C., including Devian.

When he was first contacted about the Salmonella outbreak, it looked like an isolated incident. “Those happen not infrequently,” he said in an interview. Since then, it has grown into a multi-state outbreak linked to “something that went wrong in a central kitchen.”

“We don’t know exactly the Salmonella type, but there’s a good indication it was the truffle oil and the croquettes were the food item. It appears they produce those in a central kitchen out of Long Island (N.Y.), then ship them to their restaurants across the country,” Marler said. “In part, the lawsuit will figure out the cause.”

At last count, 39 people treated for Salmonella symptoms reported that they ate at the West Hollywood Fig & Olive between Sept. 6 and 11, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Of those, eight cases were confirmed with lab tests. Two people were hospitalized. Three restaurant employees also were sickened.

Because the Salmonella outbreak spans several states, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is coordinating the ongoing investigation. As of Oct. 2, 24 cases of Salmonella were attributed to the Fig & Olive outbreak in D.C., according to the D.C. Department of Health. Investigators have interviewed nearly 200 people who reported getting sick.

In the days following reports of illnesses, Fig & Olive closed the restaurants in LA and D.C. to contain the problem. The one in D.C. closed for six days while the one in LA reopened the same day with permission from the health department. Fig & Olive didn’t return calls for comment for this story, but in a public statement released Sept. 25, they outlined the ways they’ve cooperated with the investigations. It says that they hired a third party food safety firm to address the situation in each city.

Outbreaks cost restaurants a lot of money, and not just from lawsuits. Lost business, insurance costs, employee retraining – all these will have long-term effects on the business.

In 1993, Jack in the Box became the center of a highly publicized E. coli outbreak that killed four children and sickened hundreds. The fast-food chain survived after doling out “record-breaking settlement amounts,” according to Grist. It also hired a meat-safety specialist – and rebranded the company with a recognizable mascot.

But if you can remember Chi-Chi’s – a popular Mexican chain – you’ll realize the story doesn’t always have a happy ending. The restaurant declared bankruptcy in 2004, which came no more than a year after a hepatitis A outbreak at one of its restaurants in Pennsylvania that was traced to green onions. Four people died and more than 600 contracted the illness.

Restaurant owners have found that taking responsibility and being available to address customer concerns is a major part of rebuilding trust. Last year, 21 cases of Salmonella may have been linked to Brent’s Deli in Westlake Village in California. Marc Hernandez, one of the deli owners, told a reporter that he gives a lot of kitchen tours to help ease customer concerns months after the outbreak. His efforts paid off and business picked up, he said.

Marler, who has handled foodborne illness cases for more than 20 years, said the restaurants that survive are usually the ones that are proactive and transparent.

“I think Fig & Olive will weather the storm,” he said. “Most of the companies that survive these outbreaks are big ones … or ones that are much more open about what happened and what they’re going to do to prevent the next one.”

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Restaurant kitchen image via Shutterstock