April 01, 2011
Serving food is difficult. As we all know, it can also be dangerous. From the field and feed lot, to the packer and processor, to the complex distribution and delivery processes, lots of things can happen. And that’s before anything gets to the foodservice kitchen. There’s another world of possible things to go wrong there. And sometimes that’s not the end either. The food gets served or sent out and re-served somewhere else. At every single step, there’s someone or something that can go wrong. And the result of such a lapse is people get sick or worse.
Which is what one of our local restaurants and its middle-school customer discovered a couple weeks ago here in Evanston, Ill. A well-known barbecue restaurant—part of a small, much respected local multi-concept chain—catered parent-teacher conferences at the middle school. It didn’t work out; 30 people ended up sick.
One parent, also a part-time employee of the school, has sued, claiming she and her daughter both were ill for days. But for the most part, it wasn’t too bad. People were uncomfortable for a couple of days.
As generally happens in such situations, the health department was called in. Officials got samples of the food from both the school and the restaurant. The Illinois Department of Public Health Laboratory in Springfield, Ill., was able to determine Clostridium perfrigens was the culprit, found in pulled chicken served buffet-style at the school.
The Evanston Health Department also inspected both the restaurant and school “in regards to food handling, storage and transportation.” As part of that inspection, the department noted, “No temperatures were taken at the time of delivery, and the food was not kept heated or refrigerated during the time it was served.”
It was hard to tell who made the mistake, the restaurant or the school. “The outcome of the investigation revealed unsafe food handling and temperature storage at both (the restaurant and the school), and it is therefore unlikely that the exact cause of the outbreak will be determined,” said Evanston Health Director Evonda Thomas, in a release the city issued.
In the restaurant’s defense, the owner said the same food was served to the restaurant’s customers that evening. “We didn’t have one single phone call, e-mail or anything,” he was cited as saying in a local edition of the Chicago Tribune.
But that defense won’t keep him out of court, and the publicity certainly isn’t going to help his catering business. Was the school also to blame? Were the parents and teachers responsible for the food at the school also to blame? Certainly, on one level or another. Whoever’s responsible, 30 folks got sick.
As we said, serving food is hard. We all must stay on guard, even at a middle-school parent teacher conference. Be very careful out there.