February 12, 2006
Lansing State Journal
DELTA TWP. — Carrabba's Italian Grill, where 437 diners became ill after eating there on the weekend of Jan. 28-29, has a history of critical violations, according to inspection reports prepared by the Barry-Eaton District Health Department.
The health department confirmed an outbreak of norovirus infection among the restaurant's customers, and the number of reported cases continued to grow for more than a week as diners learned of the association between Carrabba's and their illnesses.
Immediately after they learned of the outbreak, health inspectors say they visited the restaurant on Jan. 30, and reported finding six critical violations, and four repeat violations, along with a number of non-critical violations.
Following the inspection, the health department prepared a six-page report of violations.
Eric Pessel, Environmental Health Director for the Barry-Eaton District Health Department, said, "We want an action plan from Carrabba's to address these things, within ten days."
Norovirus, also known as Norwalk virus, causes stomach flu and winter vomiting syndrome. It is a common source of gastric distress, with thousands of cases world-wide.
Symptoms of the illness, including nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, normally appear 24 to 48 hours after ingesting infected food, and typically last from one to two days.
Persons infected with the disease may spread the virus to others for 72 hours after they are free of symptoms. The virus is normally spread through "fecal-oral" transmission, say health department officials.
Health inspectors say allowing sick employees to handle food and lack of hand washing by people handling food, are at the root of the outbreak at Carrabba's.
This is not the first time health inspectors have observed critical violations at Carrabba's, according to inspection reports obtained under the state's Freedom of Information Act.
Previous inspection reports have documented numerous violations, many critical, as well as many repeat violations, going back to 2001.
Pessel said the most important issue in restaurants is the management.
"I wouldn't say just because you have a violation or a group of violations that it's not safe," said Pessel. "What is really important is the management of that facility, and how they handle day-to-day operations."
Pessel said the presence of one or more violations found during a single inspection does not mean an establishment is unsafe.
"Everybody has a bad day," he said. "But we have to extrapolate that out for six months. Is it just an employee that forgot, or is this something that is more far-reaching in that establishment?"
Pessel emphasized that most of the food served to the public is safe, and such outbreaks are rare.
"For a food-borne illness to happen, a lot of things have to go wrong," he said. "It's not just ever one single thing."
He said there is a range among the establishments the department inspects.
"Some people we have to educate a little more than others. And some people do a fine job on their own," he said.
Carrabba's is operated by Outback Steakhouses, Inc. which also operates the Outback Steakhouse in Delta Township as well as the soon to be opened Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant, also in Delta Township.
An attempt was made to contact management at the Carrabba's restaurant in Delta Township.
The person who answered the telephone said the manager could not speak for the company, and referred inquiries to Joe Kadow, a spokesperson for Outback at their headquarters in Tampa, Fla.
A message was left for Kadow, but he did not return the call.