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Nancy Williams, epidemiologist, Southern Nevada Health District
Al Mancini, food writer and critic, Las Vegas CityLife
BY LEE HERNANDEZ -- Most people don’t think twice about enjoying dinner at their favorite restaurants, week in and week out. But if close to 100 people got sick from eating there, would that change?
That’s the question facing Firefly Tapas Kitchen and Bar, which was shut down last week after scores of diners got sick.
The Southern Nevada Health District determined Salmonella was the cause of the outbreak. A total of 86 people have reported the illness to SNHD, an unusually high number, says Nancy Williams, epidemiologist for the district.
Discovering the cause of the outbreak was relatively easy. However, rebuilding public trust is trickier, and whether or not people will forgive Firefly is an open question.
“Something like this has never happened to the best of my knowledge,” says Al Mancini, food writer and critic for Las Vegas CityLife. “Restaurants can be closed and be reopened in 24 hours and people tend to say ‘well, that happens’ and they’re very quick to forgive that. When 80 to 90 people are getting sick, I don’t know how quick we are to forgive that and I think that’s what we’re looking to see.”
Mancini reported a rash of restaurant closings last year after tougher food inspection regulations were put into place. Many chefs believe the regulations are too tough. “Chefs say (the new regulations) are burdensome,” Mancini says. “There is a lot of record keeping, a lot of keeping track of temperatures. Chefs, on a busy day, will say ‘we have been doing it one way for 15-20 years, we’re not going to change.’ And because of that, a lot of really good restaurants ended up being closed.”
High-end strip restaurants Scarpetta at Cosmopolitan and Julian Serrano at Aria were closed within 24 hours of each other in 2012. Both restaurants reopened the next day.
What is salmonella and how do you prevent it?
Salmonella is a bacterium that causes gastrointestinal illness like vomiting and diarrhea; there a number of ways it can spread at home and in restaurants.
“There are really two thoughts on how it gets into foods,” says Williams. “One would be that it came in with a raw food product, and the key there is proper sanitation within the restaurant to prevent it from spreading and getting cross-contaminated on cutting boards or something that is used for multiple foods. And then to keep raw foods away from cooked foods.”
Williams also says it is possible to spread salmonella through foods if a food handler sick with salmonella has not washed his or her hands properly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no vaccine to prevent salmonellosis. Because foods of animal origin may be contaminated with salmonella, people should not eat raw or undercooked eggs, poultry, or meat.
The SNHD is still investigating the Firefly case, and a final report will eventually be issued. That report might be a key factor in whether or not patrons will be comfortable going back to Firefly.
“I didn’t have anything to eat there yet (since the outbreak), and I’m not saying I wouldn’t,” Mancini says. “I’m not passing judgment there. I am honestly, like I think a lot of people should be doing, waiting for the full report from the SNHD to see the degree to which Firefly was to blame.”