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Food safety: Even the experts are not immune

Not that you'd want to, but if you had to construct a worst-case scenario for a foodborne illness outbreak in a full-service restaurant, you'd have to go some to top the one that befell the East Lansing, MI, unit of casual white tablecloth chain Bravo Cucina Italiana. It didn't just suffer an outbreak of norovirus just months after one befell direct competitor Carrabba's Italian Grill at its Lansing-area unit. Worse, one of Bravo's victims was the professor who's in charge of Michigan State University's food safety program. And, yes, she's filing suit.

We don't know that the suit filed on behalf of Pattie McNeil, adjunct professor at Michigan State's School of Hospitality Business, will be successful, or even that it will make it to court. But if it does, the attorneys defending Bravo will have one tough time finding impartial jury members. Lansing and East Lansing, MI, home of Michigan State University, have been scenes of two very large outbreaks of foodborne norovirus this year.

The first occurred at a Carrabba's unit in January, when 437 patrons became ill.

Carrabba's pulled out all the stops to make things right, even taking out a full-page ad in the Lansing State Journal urging victims to settle with the company's insurance carrier. Many did, getting a $300 payout. "If they're willing to have their insurance company compensate people that were sick, and they've admitted that they made a mistake, and they're going to correct it, then that's good enough for me," victim Amy Paulis told Michigan broadcast station WLNS. Other victims were less amenable to the printed suggestion; at least two have filed lawsuits.

While not in E-coli's class as a life-threatening foodborne pathogen, norovirus is no picnic. Victims experience nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting and sometimes-bloody diarrhea. These symptoms last as long as two days. Those infected can spread the virus to others for as much as 72 hours after their own symptoms disappear.

You'd think the Carrabba's outbreak would have caused local restaurants to become extra-diligent. But even a well-run company like Bravo, whose parent company operates 54 restaurants total between Bravo and its Brio Tuscan Grille concept, can run into trouble.

In its case, it ran into big trouble via a norovirus outbreak in early May that affected at least 360 patrons. One of those patrons was McNeil. She was out working with another Lansing-area restaurant that had been cited for food safety violations when her norovirus symptoms kicked in. She told the Associated Press that she decided to sue because she had witnessed several food violations while dining at Bravo on a previous occasion and brought them to the attention of the manager at that time. McNeil believes she contracted the illness from a takeout salad she purchased on May 7.

For its part, Bravo immediately offered to pay the medical expenses of any patron who had been affected by the outbreak and said it would make up any wages lost for people who were unable to go to work. The company closed the restaurant and gave it the kind of saturation-level cleaning recommended to rid any premise of norovirus, reopening it after getting the OK from the local health department.

Health department officials, of course, descended upon the restaurant at the first sign of trouble. But they have yet to pinpoint a single source of the problem. In the Carrabba's case, inspectors concluded that food handled by sick employees might have been a root cause of the outbreak there.

"This is the second major norovirus outbreak to hit Lansing in 2006. Bravo's owners and management should have learned from what happened at Carrabba's and had measures in place to prevent outbreaks," says McNeil's attorney. "It is a restaurant's responsibility not just to serve food, but to serve safe food."

Would you want to be in Bravo's shoes now? Or Carrabba's?

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