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Officials Find What's Ailing Oscar

by Josh Grossberg

Mar 13, 2002

And the Oscar goes to...Outbreak.

Los Angeles County health officials have figured out the source of those freak illnesses that hit the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Scientific and Technical Awards last Saturday. And it ain't pretty.

For outstanding technical achievement in making nearly one-third of the 550 guests at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel sick, the Health Department singled out the Norwalk virus, a class of infectious agents that spread like wildfire through guests' meals and typically causes gastroenteritis, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Symptoms include "a short incubation period and a fairly short-lived illness" characterized by vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and low-grade fever.

Public health director Jonathan Fielding told the Reporter the Norwalk virus usually spreads through food contaminated with feces or vomit. Health officials examined the posh ballroom where the low-key black-tie affair was held, as well as the Beverly Wilshire's food preparation and service areas to rule out any health-code violations.

"We performed a very careful inspection, and we have no reason to believe it is a continuing problem at the hotel," Fielding said, adding that the outbreak most likely came from distributors and not the hotel kitchen staff preparing the food.

According to epidemiologists at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Norwalk virus typically spreads through shellfish that's tainted by fecal matter from sick food workers who handle the food before being shipped out to restaurants and hotels. The nasty ailment could also have been picked up in seafood that mixed with raw sewage dumped overboard in the ocean by harvesters and recreational boaters. (Lovely.)

That night's menu featured salad, lobster bisque, roast beef with a side of halibut, and assorted vegetables and various desserts.

All told, it's not a particularly pleasant thought for all the guests who were stricken by the bug. About 24 hours after the ceremony, about 250 people (everyone from this year's Oscar producer Laura Ziskin to some 20 Motion Picture Academy employees) called in sick and were ill for up to two days. The evening's host, actress Charlize Theron, was not stricken.

The Oscars' technical awards are handed out a few weeks before Hollywood's big night to honor the "devices, methods, formulas, discoveries or inventions of special and outstanding value to the arts and sciences of motion pictures."

Academy officials are no doubt hoping to avoid a repeat bug at other Oscar events. For that, they've enlisted famed gourmet chef Wolfgang Puck to once again cater the post-Oscar Governor's Ball, which will take place at the new Kodak Theater following the show March 24.

And maybe next year they can lay off the lobster.

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