It may involve lettuce: unreported food poisoning cases reflect gap in food safety net

At what point do food service staff also have to play epidemiologist?

Scott James of The Bay Citizen writes that San Francisco’s Italian eatery Delfina has been considered one of the Bay Area’s best restaurants for more than a decade; Craig Stoll, its co-owner and chef, won a coveted James Beard award in 2008.

But in December, its many accolades could not protect Delfina from an unusual incident. On a night the restaurant was booked solely for a private party, about two dozen patrons were sickened by food poisoning.

The staff determined what each victim ate, and since a vegetarian was among those sickened, oysters, beef tartar and other foods were eliminated as the sources of illness.

“We narrowed things down to the most common denominator,” Stoll said. Their conclusion: Tainted produce, most likely salad greens.

The restaurant contacted its suppliers, but no alert went out to the public, and there was no government investigation. The San Francisco Department of Public Health had not heard of the incident until contacted by The Bay Citizen.

In what appears to be a gap in the food supply safety net, there is no requirement for restaurants to report when their diners are affected by foodborne illnesses even when large numbers of people get sick.

“They are not obligated to report it,” said Richard Lee, director of environmental health regulatory programs for the city.

Mandatory reporting is not required at the state level either, according to the California Department of Public Health. Under both state and local laws, reporting is required only when restaurant workers become sick.

Rajiv Bhatia, the city’s director of environmental health, said the Delfina incident was now under investigation, but added that it was highly unusual for health officials to be unaware of a case involving so many diners.

He suggested a need for stricter rules. “I believe that reporting of potential outbreaks should be mandatory for supermarkets, restaurants, schools and workplace cafeterias, even though this is not a requirement under current law,” he said.

At Delfina, which consistently achieves high scores on health inspections, Stoll said there had not been an illness before or since that night, but he wants the mystery solved.