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Outbreak II: Latest illness from restaurant points to public health issue

May 17, 2006

Lansing State Journal


For the second time this year, hundreds of people have been sickened after dining in an area restaurant.

Whether it's coincidence or part of a larger food-safety picture, this draws attention to a growing health issue - one that should prompt tougher sanctions on establishments that seriously violate public health codes.

For one thing, restaurants should not be given the option of closing their doors when an illness outbreak is suspected. They should be closed automatically by order of the county health department - which state law empowers counties to do.

In January, more than 400 people were sickened by a norovirus after dining at Carrabba's Italian Grill in Delta Township. Carrabba's chose to stay open after it became aware of the widespread illness.

This month, at least 360 people fell ill recently after dining at Bravo Cucina Italiana in the Eastwood Towne Center. Bravo closed voluntarily. Ingham County Medical Director Dr. Dean Sienko said Tuesday a norovirus caused the illness.

Both restaurants have enjoyed great popularity in the past, as evidenced by lines of people awaiting tables. It is fair for area residents and local health officials to ask whether such success exacts a price - the health of restaurant patrons.

We don't know. But if you're like some folks in this community, you may be feeling a bit queasy about your next restaurant dining experience.

At the least, restaurant owners and county health departments need to ask some hard questions.

Are restaurants properly staffed? Carrabba's was cited for allowing an ill employee to work. Whether or not that was due to a staffing shortage, understaffing at some restaurants is a chronic problem. Understaffing can lead to sloppy hygienic practices.

Are employees sufficiently trained in food safety, and do they get regular "refresher" courses?

Do health departments need more inspectors? Ingham County has seven people to inspect 1,148 establishments. County commissioners should seriously consider increasing that staff.

Are fines big enough for serious health violations? We'd argue they should be higher. In Eaton County, for instance, if a restaurant has to be reinspected because of a critical violation, the "reinspection fee" is $129. It's $101 in Ingham County. Fines should be punitive enough to make restaurateurs act quickly to remedy serious violations.

Do concerned restaurant patrons have ready access to health departments? When you call the Ingham County Health Department, for example, the recorded message gives no "prompt" to register a health concern about a restaurant. Considering how often people dine out these days, a "Food Safety Hotline" makes sense.

Like many Americans, mid-Michigan residents eat many meals outside the home. The sheer number of meals served in restaurants makes it a looming public health issue. We all need to treat it as such.

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