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Noma Scare Shows No Restaurant Fully Safe: Richard Vines

Chef Rene Redzepi
Chef Rene Redzepi. His Copenhagen-based Noma holds the title of "Best Restaurant in the World," according to several surveys. Photo: Richard Vines/Bloomberg

The food-poisoning outbreak at Noma in Copenhagen raises the question of whether it’s safe to dine anywhere if 63 guests fall sick at the world’s best restaurant.

“Food hygiene is the one thing that every restaurant has got to get right,” David Moore, owner of Pied a Terre and L’Autre Pied in London, said in an interview. “It doesn’t matter what end of the market you’re in, it’s got to be perfect. Your customers’ health is at stake, and so is your reputation.”

Guests from 12 parties experienced diarrhea and vomiting from Feb. 12-16, Denmark’s health inspection agency said in a report on its website. The norovirus (or Roskilde) outbreak may have been caused by an employee who fell sick and failed to wash his hands thoroughly, Politiken reported on March 8.

The outbreak wasn’t caught more quickly because Noma didn’t immediately discard all handled food, disinfect with bleach, wash all equipment and alert staff after the employee said he was sick, the newspaper reported. There was only cold water in the tap that person used, it said. The restaurant failed to check its computer inbox, which contained two e-mail complaints.

“We are of course devastated that this has happened and have done everything in our power to ensure it will not happen again,” Noma’s chef and co-owner Rene Redzepi said in a statement. He posted a message on Twitter: “Dear friends, thank you for your concern. Here are the facts! Best wishes Rene Redzepi and the entire Noma crew.”

Handmade Intricacy

Noma, which has won the title of World’s Best Restaurant for three straight years, specializes in intricate plates of food that require many elements to be assembled by hand. It shares that characteristic with another winner of that title, the Fat Duck, where 529 people fell ill with norovirus in 2009.

The U.K. Health Protection Agency report on that outbreak, caused by contaminated shellfish, said weaknesses in procedure at the restaurant were partly responsible for failing to halt the spread of the virus.

Outbreaks of food poisoning at high-profile restaurants in the U.K. are reassuringly rare. Before the Fat Duck, it was 1999 when 18 diners said they fell sick at Rhodes in the Square, Caterer and Hotelkeeper reported in January that year.

“It would be the worst nightmare to have something like this happen,” said Chris Galvin, the chef whose company operates four restaurants in London, including Galvin La Chapelle in the City. “I really feel for Noma. I’m sure they’ve got the highest standards of hygiene but this can come from anywhere.”

Safety Consultancy

Galvin, like many of the U.K.’s leading restaurateurs, employs Food Alert Ltd., a food and health safety consultancy. Food Alert assesses compliance with legislation, provides training and ensures restaurants meet the standards required for inspections. It also handles alleged food-poisoning incidents, which are known in the business as AFPs.

Clients listed on the website include Gordon Ramsay, Mark Hix, the Wolseley, Wahaca, Caprice, All Star Lanes, Benugo, Leon, Paul, Harry Ramsden’s, Rhubarb at the Royal Opera House, Wagamama, Vapiano, Hilton at Heathrow and Vapiano.

Galvin estimated that a restaurant company might receive between five and 10 complaints of sickness a year. He said every such incident is thoroughly investigated, including checking the computer to see what dishes were ordered, whether anyone else had complained and how much alcohol was consumed.

He said it can cost as much as 150 pounds ($224) to investigate a complaint and he estimated that his company spends more than 200,000 pounds a year ensuring food hygiene.

Farm Visits

Galvin and his cooks regularly visit farms and other suppliers and conduct checks on deliveries to see if the vehicles are clean and properly refrigerated and whether boxes are damaged. Each restaurant has Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, or HAACP, to ensure food is not contaminated.

In each kitchen, one chef is designated to enforce hygiene standards at every level, from temperature control and disinfected surfaces through to checking chefs change their gloves when moving from one type of dish to another.

With millions of diners eating in restaurants each day, no one can ensure absolute safety. Even if a nation and individual restaurants have the highest standards, future food-poisoning outbreaks are inevitable.

It only takes one employee confusing his sickness with a hangover or failing to wash his hands and viruses may multiply.

Strict training is part of the answer but restaurants must also learn, or be forced, to report in a timely manner.

If you’re worried about safety in a restaurant, there is one consolation: Crossing the road to get there is probably more hazardous.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Mark Beech on music, Elin McCoy on wine and Lance Esplund on art.

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