Anonymity and Food-Borne Pathogen Investigations

A while ago, there was a bit of a scandal as the D.C. location of Fig & Olive, a rather expensive restaurant was briefly shutdown due to Salmonella outbreak that sickened dozens. In D.C., a Freedom of Information Act was filed to get a hold of the health department’s investigation records. Fig and Olive doesn’t come off looking too high class (boldface mine):

When you order truffle risotto at an upscale restaurant—the kind that lists local farms at the top of its menu—you might expect that the dish is prepared fresh, from-scratch in the kitchen. But at Fig & Olive, the $26 truffle risotto (no longer on the menu) was pre-cooked and frozen at a central commissary in Long Island City, New York, then shipped to restaurants around the country, where it was reheated with cheese and garnished.

In fact, the commissary supplies Fig & Olive restaurants with nearly 200 dish components, including soups, sauces, purees, dressings, desserts, breads, ratatouille, ravioli, crab cakes, pre-cooked chicken tagine, pre-cooked paella, and more…

Diagrams demonstrating food preparations sent from Fig & Olive to DOH show how heavily the restaurant relied on the commissary. Step one of instructions for truffle mushroom croquettes (one of the items removed from the menu, seen below) reads: “Use frozen mushroom croquette mix from commisary [sic].”

Even investigators seemed surprised by some recipe shortcuts. In conversations attempting to identify a possible contamination point, a CDC epidemiologist asked a DOH epidemiologist if she know whether Fig & Olive’s truffle olive oil aioli was made with raw or pasteurized eggs. The answer was neither. The DOH epidemiologist noted the chef told her he uses Hellmann’s mayonnaise instead.

“Ha. So I guess even fancy restaurants use name brand mayo for their aioli,” the CDC epidemiologist wrote in an email.

“It was a bit of a surprise!” her DOH counterpart remarked.

We can all have a chuckle about this, but this is actually not a good thing. I’m all for FOIA requests, but one lesson that can be learned from this is that how restaurants run their kitchens will be blabbed to the public. It’s one thing if there were a criminal or civil case being filed–in those cases, restaurant practices shouldn’t be kept private. But this sort of release doesn’t really serve a public or legal purpose. Some restaurant owners will see this and might decide to be less cooperative when investigated than they otherwise would have been.

This might sell papers, but I’m not sure it’s great for public health.

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3 Responses to Anonymity and Food-Borne Pathogen Investigations

  1. Brea Plum says:

    Really, you don’t think that a restaurant’s customers should know that they are being conned and defrauded when they are told they are getting freshly prepared meals made from local ingredients?

  2. -dsr- says:

    No, restaurants should be open about their use of pre-made ingredients, and lying or ducking the question is not acceptable. If your customers aren’t willing to pay your prices once they know that you make risotto every three days and freeze it, that’s a sign of a better-informed market.

  3. anthrosciguy says:

    Magic Christian stuff. It’d be funny if this kind of thing led to the sort of unintended outrage/reform that came from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, where instead of the labor reform he hoped the book might create a groundswell for, people got outraged by the food handling described. Slaughterhouse in that book.

    But I could see the problem you’re worried about. Why wouldn’t a restaurant chain invoke trade secrets to avoid cooperating, just as the fracking industry has repeatedly done.

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