Sick leave: At least 25 get ill from pop-up dinner

Now & Zen owner/chef Toshi Sato said he believes the bean sprouts or spinach were to blame for pop-up dinner customers getting sick.  Photo by Elli William Now & Zen owner/chef Toshi Sato said he believes the bean sprouts or spinach were to blame for pop-up dinner customers getting sick. Photo by Elli William

A crucial part of learning to be a sushi chef is food safety. So imagine Now & Zen owner/chef Toshi Sato’s horror when he learned that people who attended a special pop-up ramen dinner February 16 at his restaurant got sick.

“All my good customers,” he says. “I was terrorized. I didn’t know what caused it. It’s a scary thing.”

Comments started appearing the next day on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “There was something wrong with the ramen last night,” says one. “Four out of five people in my dinner party got sick. I had to skip classes today because I was feeling so terrible and haven’t been able to keep anything more than half a bottle of water down.”

“My wife and I both got sick after eating these ramen last night,” says another.

Reports of “gastro-intestinal complaints” started coming into the local Virginia Department of Health office as well, says Thomas Jefferson Health District epidemiologist Kerry Morrison. No one went to the hospital, and although she can’t provide specific numbers, she says, “We believe at least 25 people became sick.”

So far, the health department doesn’t know what caused the outbreak, and it can take several weeks to investigate, says Morrison. She calls it a “single, isolated event.”

She also says it’s health department policy to not identify the business unless it’s an immediate threat to public health.

Sato has his own theory. “I think it was the vegetables,” he says, naming the bean sprouts or spinach.

He emphasizes that the dinner was a special event and sushi was not served that evening.

Morrison contacted people who became ill to understand their symptoms, when they began, what they ate and whether they’d had other contacts that could have made them sick, for example, with an unwell animal.

“The owner sent an online survey to customers,” she says, noting he was “very cooperative.”

She also collected food samples from the restaurant and requested stool samples from the stricken.

Such foodborne illness outbreaks are relatively rare in the area. The Thomas Jefferson Health District had one last year and two in 2014 that were caused by norovirus and salmonella, says Morrison.

Eric Myers is the environmental health supervisor with the department of health, and he, too, investigates outbreaks within 24 hours to make sure best practices are followed in the kitchen of a restaurant, school or anywhere else food is being served to the public.

He says risk factors include personal hygiene of food preparers, improper holding of hot and cold foods or not cooking at proper temperatures. He also checks employees’ health to make sure no one has been ill in the past week and that contaminated equipment has been properly sanitized.

And with the popularity of pop-up dining and food trucks, Myers says, “Anytime food is served to the public, it’s required a permit be posted.”

Myers says, “The owner has been very cooperative. We feel good about the control measures put in place.”

Sato canceled a second ramen pop-up on February 17, and a week after the outbreak, he still sounds shaken. He doesn’t see any more ramen nights in Now & Zen’s future. “Mentally,” he says, “I don’t think I can take it.”