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Outbreak: Illness from area restaurant renews focus on health standards

February 7, 2006

A Lansing State Journal editorial

The virus that sickened hundreds of people who recently dined in a Lansing-area restaurant was an instructive reminder on several levels:

As a society, we rely increasingly on meals prepared away from our homes. That implies a great deal of trust in restaurants. Sometimes, the trust is broken.

Owners and managers of area restaurants may look at what happened at Carrabba's Italian Grill and say: "There but for the grace of God go I." These restaurants should review all of their hygienic and food-preparation practices. w In Michigan, county health departments serve as both the first and last lines of defense against health risks in restaurants. They need to be ever-vigilant. And to state and county leaders who may be tempted to balance tight budgets by curtailing health inspections - think again.

As of Monday, 344 people reportedly took ill after dining at Carrabba's on Jan. 28-29. Officials with the Barry-Eaton District Health Department confirmed last week that the illness was cause by a norovirus, which often causes vomiting and diarrhea.

Carrabba's was cited for allowing an ill employee to work during the weekend of Jan. 28. Preparation of an unspecified food was the source, according to county health officials.

Further, the Delta Township restaurant was cited for as yet unspecified poor hygiene practices. Barry-Eaton officials say that, among other things, they're working with the restaurant on good hand-washing practices.

People are rightly startled by the magnitude of this viral outbreak. But they shouldn't be surprised that restaurants locally, and statewide, are routinely cited for what health officials call critical violations. Barry-Eaton officials say that, on average, there are two critical violations for each inspection of the approximately 600 restaurants they inspect.

Common critical violations are improper hand-washing, improper food temperatures and improperly marking the dates when foods must be thrown out.

Considering the amount of food served daily in area eateries, and the fact that outbreaks of illness stemming from restaurant dining are infrequent, it's fair to conclude the system generally works. Most restaurants are presumed to be following the rules, motivated by regular health department inspections.

Pressure from the restaurant-going public helps ensure that what happened at Carrabba's will be the rare exception.

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