Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Restaurant Survey: Readers Have Their Say (Part 2)

October 13, 2009

A couple of days ago, I posted the first of the reader responses to my survey: Restaurant Inspections: Does Publishing The Results Do Any Good?

Here is a response from another regular reader – a lucid and detailed description of a birthday celebration gone wrong.

From Patty in New York State:

This past August, I had one of those “big” birthdays. As shallow as it may seem, I’ve always found these particular milestones to be traumatic, but, nevertheless, I ignore these unwelcome feelings, and always enjoy low-key celebrations with my husband and two children. This year, my birthday was on a Sunday, but with the kids at home, we celebrated all weekend.

The Saturday night before my birthday, the four of us went to a restaurant at a near-by marina on the Hudson River (Hudson Water Club in West Haverstraw, NY). It was a beautiful evening, and although we were there before five, we were lucky to get a table outside on the crowded deck right near the water.

I had New England clam chowder and tilapia francaise. I had tasted tilapia for the first time only weeks before, and at that time, it was delicious, so I was happy to see it on the menu. This time, however, it was not a good choice. The coating was “eggy”; it almost tasted like scrambled eggs, and the fish had a “funny” taste. What I should have done was not eaten it, but pushing my plate aside would have seemed out of sync with good time we were all enjoying. I didn’t eat it all, but ate enough so that it wasn’t too obvious that I was not enjoying my meal. Besides, the company was what I was loving; what I had for dinner was of little importance….or so I thought.

After the meal, while waiting for the waitress to bring the check, I started getting very dizzy....and then nauseous. My strategy was to try to ignore it. Surely it would subside. I had not had even one alcoholic beverage, and surely, I reasoned, I couldn’t become “really” sick so suddenly. Whatever it was would go away. I focused on the credit card placed on the table, and began to wonder why the waitress was taking so long. I wanted to go home!! The conversation around me faded in & out, and I realized that rather than getting better, I was in danger of passing out right in my seat. At that point, pretence was useless, and my priority became to not faint in the midst of this crowd of people.

After a brief, slightly panicked, explanation to my family, I hurried from my seat making my way around the building to the front of the restaurant. My daughter who was trying to catch-up, hurried behind me. My goal was to get where I could be alone and find a place to sit before I passed-out and created a scene. Once out front, however, I found there was no place to sit, not even a decent curb, so with my daughter by my side, I sat on the ground on a small weed-filled island in the middle of the parking lot, and put my head between my legs. I was much dizzier by this time and also somewhat nauseous, but stomach pain had also started making me believe I was having an attack of pancreatitis. Three years before, I had been hospitalized with acute pancreatitis, and I was told it was caused by infection and should not reoccur. This pain, however, made me wonder.

My husband and son caught-up with us within minutes, though it felt like a very long time to me. They each supported me, one on each side, in order to walk the short distance to our car. I found myself amazed at how dizzy I was. The parking lot was spinning; I was nauseous, I was in pain. At one point, I wondered out loud if I was having a heart attack.

I couldn't make it to the car, even with my family’s help; I collapsed onto the ground, too dizzy and in too much pain to move. My son went and got the car, and my family struggled to load me into the front seat. Their plan was to go to the emergency room, which was almost a half hour away, but by this time, I was in so much pain, I insisted we drive the ten minutes to go home. If I had to go to the hospital from there, they could call an ambulance.

Once home, I remained dizzy, had stomach pain and obvious intestinal distress, but I slowly got better during the next few hours, making an emergency room visit unnecessary. The next day, my birthday, I was just totally wiped-out , but I was ever so grateful to be home and not in the hospital.

I did get to the doctor as soon as he’d see me, which was the following Tuesday. He ordered blood work done on Wednesday, to make sure I didn't have something other than the food poisoning he suspected. He explained there was a kind of food poisoning which could strike as quickly as an hour after eating. The symptoms of this particular bacterial poisoning were both neurological and gastrointestinal, and were the same as the ones I described having experienced. The blood work showed no signs of ill health, and seemed to confirm his suspicions.

It took a week to get the blood test results, but when I did, I called the county board of health to report my experience. The health worker asked me a series of questions including ones about everything I ate. She was supportive, but explained they had not received any other complaints, and that the time that had passed made an investigation more difficult. She did promise to visit the site and make sure that health codes were not being violated. A few days later, she left a message on my machine, inviting me to call back for a follow-up report. I tried several days in a row, also leaving messages, but I was back to work after my vacation, and our work schedules kept us from connecting; I never did learn of her findings.

I’m not surprised there were no other reports of illness. Had I not suspected pancreatitis, I never would have followed-up with my doctor and learned that food poisoning can strike so quickly. I would have assumed I had a very bad “24 hour” virus, and put the experience behind me. As it is, however, I have a new awareness of how debilitating and frightening food-borne illness can be, and a new appreciation of the work done to educate people and prevent them from being victims of food poisoning.

The Rockland County Department of Health followed up on Patty's complaint by inspecting the restaurant on September 9th. According to the summary report posted by the County, its health inspector found the following critical violation – "Food workers do not use proper utensils to eliminate bare hand contact with cooked or prepared foods."

Prior inspections of the restaurant had not uncovered any significant problems, except for an August 2008 inspection, during which the inspector observed, "All poultry, poultry stuffings, stuffed meats and stuffings containing meat are not heated to 165ºF or above" – a critical violation of correct temperature control.

There are two plausible explanations for Patty's illness – scombroid poisoning and Bacillus cereus food poisoning. Both fit the symptoms. Both fit the food. The "funny" taste of the fish might point to scombroid, which is associated with bacterial growth in fish that is stored too long or at improper temperatures. Or, Bacillus cereus, which is often associated with rice and other starches and grains, might have grown and produced a heat-stable toxin in the batter used to coat the fish.

Had Patty followed her initial instinct and rejected the food that tasted "off", she would likely have been spared an unpleasant and frightening illness. I'm very glad that she was able to bounce back quickly, and I thank her for sharing her experience with us.

I'll be posting more reader comments in the coming days. If you would like to contribute your thoughts, or describe a restaurant-related food safety experience, please post your comments below, or email them to me directly (click on my Profile to access my email address).

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