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In Noma's Norovirus Episode, Ignored Emails Get Some Blame

The facade of Noma in Copenhagen. More than 60 diners complained of nausea and diarrhea after eating at the widely acclaimed restaurant last month.
Dresling Jens
The facade of Noma in Copenhagen. More than 60 diners complained of nausea and diarrhea after eating at the widely acclaimed restaurant last month.

Days after news spread that Danish restaurant Noma, three-time winner of Restaurantmagazine's "World's Best Restaurant" title, was blamed for a norovirus outbreak in which dozens of diners fell ill, the restaurant has issued a public response and sought to clarify its handling of the situation.

And while noroviruses are "perhaps the perfect human pathogens," as The Journal of Infectious Diseases reports, it also seems that Noma could have spared some of its diners from the pathogens if its staff had read emails from health inspectors. Once it received the message that patrons were falling ill, the restaurant closed for two days to address the issue.

As we reported Friday, Denmark's food agency, Fødevarestyrelsen, says that a Noma staff member spread the illness, resulting in more than 60 patrons suffering from diarrhea and nausea.

While The Copenhagen Post reported that 67 people became ill, the restaurant and the Danish food safety agency agree the number is 63. Noma says it regrets the incident, and it has been "in direct contact" with customers who ate at the restaurant in the time in question, between Feb. 12 and Feb. 16.

According to the official inspection report, a Noma employee became nauseous on the night of Friday, Feb. 15, after work. The restaurant says the staff member "was a carrier and did not show any symptoms of the virus" — something we take to refer to the worker's time on the clock. The restaurant's management say they've long had a policy in place that requires sick employees to stay home.

A day earlier, on Thursday, Feb. 14, the agency had sent an email to Noma informing it that its diners were reporting serious health problems. But the restaurant acknowledges that it didn't read its mail that day.

Noting that members of its staff come from all over the world, Noma said that "unfortunately there was a slight delay as the email was picked up initially by a non-Danish speaking member of the team and wasn't responded to until Monday after the weekend service."

In its report, the food agency says that Noma has pledged to have an employee who speaks both English and Danish to read its mail. The restaurant has also posted the final report on its exterior, along with providing a prominent link on its website.

While the official report noted that there was no hot water for employees to wash their hands in the kitchen's prep area, Noma clarifies that it has four sinks on the two floors of its kitchen, and one of those — in the prep area — lacked hot water. We noted in our original post that the restaurant quickly had a plumber fix that sink.

But as alert readers of our original post noted, washing hands with hot water is in itself not sufficient to rid a kitchen of norovirus. The inspection report cited the restaurant's work to disinfect its kitchen with chlorine and to throw away all food that had been handled. Noma says it closed for two days so it could reset its kitchen.

"As a precaution the kitchen and restaurant have been deep cleaned several times following Health Inspection guidelines," chef Rene Redzepi wrote on Noma's website. "This has been done on top of the overall cleaning, which takes place several times a day."

Noma also says it has tested staff members for norovirus and has been in touch with its customers.

"When the first results came in, indicating norovirus, guests were informed and offered either to return as our guests or to be fully refunded," a statement from the restaurant reads. "We are delighted that many guests have already accepted the offer to return to noma."

The restaurant, which became a hit for its creative reimagining of Nordic cuisine, received a warning from the Danish food agency. A check of the restaurant's online reservations calendar finds that it is in its normal state: completely booked.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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