Epidemiology links to Panera in Jersey norovirus outbreak; spokesperson highlights that staff weren’t ill

Food safety is about trust. Good processing, retail and food service companies choose suppliers that they trust – and sometimes that includes demonstrating they can manage risks during some sort of an audit or inspection.
Patrons choose food based on a whole bunch of things like price, taste, ethical philosophy and trust that they aren’t going to get sick — with not all that much safety information to go on.

In most jurisdictions, selling food means meeting some sort of licensing/inspection requirement. In better locales health authorities tell people about how individuals managed food safety the last time someone checked – and post the results online or in the window (even better if they have QR codes). I had coffee with a colleague last week and he asked me about North Carolina’s grade posting system. I said I liked the dialogue and interest it generates but that it’s hard to make a decision based on the sign – there are lots of limitations. I can’t tell whether the business lost points because of a bunch of little things like broken tiles or no hot water in the handwashing sinks (that I don’t really care about) or whether someone showed up to work barfing (which I do care about).

He just said, "I don’t eat at Jersey Mike’s because of the grade posting. They had a 94 (relatively low in NC -ben) for a couple of months."

Having poor inspection results can affect patrons’ trust – so can outbreaks.

In Jersey, land of Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Snooki and Jwow and Princeton, NJ health folks have pointed to a Mercer County Panera Bread outlet as one of the potential spots where a January 2012 norovirus outbreak was spread. According to Samantha Costa of The Times, Panera was reported as a common spot that a bunch of the ill college kids ate.

During the peak of the norovirus outbreak at colleges here this winter, as many as 150 Princeton University students could have been exposed to the illness at a local eatery, public health officials said this week.The virus that sickened more than 400 students at colleges and universities throughout Mercer County may have been spread through many venues, but health officials in Princeton suspect many Princeton University cases originated at Panera Bread on Nassau Street. In late January, the health department removed five workers in the restaurant from food handling after discovering that many students with the illness had eaten there.

“There might have been upwards of 150 different students, and there was no realistic way to get a total number of food histories on those students,” Princeton Regional Health Department Director David Henry said. All of those students had eaten at Panera, but there were many other potential sources of the virus that also may have been involved, health officials said.

Jackie Brenne, a spokeswoman for Panera, said that despite the precautions, “no Panera associates were found to be ill. Panera managers did review safety and illness policies with all cafe associates.”The health department report said inspector Randy Carter spent about an hour at Panera Bread, tracking down the food histories of where students ate and listed common foods they ate at Panera Bread to rule out salmonella (not sure why Salmonella was focused on here? -ben).

However, the students’ eating habits pointed to many retail food establishments, the report said.“In those particular cases, we can’t label or narrow it down to one or two food establishments. It was a community outbreak and Panera and some of the other places just ended up being victims of the norovirus,” Henry said. “We don’t know the one place. All we know is when we have a situation we have to contain it.”Nassau Street is frequented by many Princeton University and Rider University students alike, the department said. Rider’s Westminster Choir College campus is in Princeton.


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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.