One worker – not the food – was the problem at a longtime Buffalo restaurant that prompted a community health alert over the weekend, the owners of the business said Tuesday.
An employee’s illness was responsible for a hepatitis A warning issued by the Erie County Health Department, which urged those who ate at Casa-di-Pizza, 477 Elmwood Ave., earlier this month to get vaccinated against the disease.
“The food was not the issue. This has been the biggest misconception regarding the problem,” said Joseph J. Jacobbi Jr., owner of the 62-year-old business started by his father.
“The restaurant food was never in question. It was strictly the person and not the food.”
Last Friday, the Elmwood Village restaurant found out that a food server was diagnosed with hepatitis A.
According to county Health Commissioner Dr. Gale R. Burstein, the server had gone to a doctor and was found to have symptoms. Once the diagnosis was confirmed, notification was sent to the state Department of Health.
Burstein said that only one employee was infected, a woman who had worked in the dining and banquet rooms as a server and food handler making salads.
Representatives of the Health Department and restaurant met Saturday morning. “We have been in full compliance with the Erie County Health Department and will continue to cooperate with them,” Jacobbi said.
A subsequent inspection of the restaurant by Health Department officials found some minor violations – not related to food – that are common in restaurants of similar size, Jacobbi said.
“Because they were nonthreatening to food served, we were given two weeks to correct these issues,” he said. “We were then told that it is perfectly safe to eat at our restaurant.”
Once the restaurant operators learned of the server’s diagnosis last week, all employees were ordered to be screened or vaccinated within 48 hours, Jacobbi said. “Casa-di-Pizza has always put proper sanitation in the workplace as priority number one with all its employees,” Jacobbi said.
Meanwhile, the Health Department offered precautionary vaccines to dine-in restaurant patrons who may have been exposed to the virus between March 9 and last Thursday.
Burstein said that between 1,500 and 2,000 people may be at risk, but emphasized that the risk of transmission is very low.
Though the potential exposure by patrons dates from March 1, officials said, those who dined there between March 1 and 8 aren’t eligible for the vaccine because it’s effective only within two weeks of exposure.
Health officials said that as of Tuesday afternoon, a total of 1,008 vaccinations had been administered at the two-day emergency clinic in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, which remained open through 6 p.m. Tuesday.
There were 766 vaccinations given Monday, the first day of the clinic.
Jacobbi said Casa-di-Pizza remains open for business. In fact, he said, it’s offering a special pizza promotion through the end of the month for its loyal patrons. And for those who were inconvenienced by having to get vaccinated, there’s a 25 percent discount for dine-in customers who present their paperwork from the Health Department.
For restaurants, a foodborne illness often means damage control. Even one seemingly minor case involving an infected employee can harm a business’ reputation and sales.
In 2013, the Council to Improve Foodborne Outbreak Response issued voluntary guidelines for the food service industry’s role during investigations of foodborne illness. The recommendations underscore the importance of transparency, communication and prevention efforts, especially proper hand-washing by employees in the case of hepatitis A.
Hepatitis A is a virus spread human-to-human by fecal-oral contamination.
Public health officials said Casa-di-Pizza has cooperated with the investigation of the case and has demonstrated that its employees are aware of proper hand-washing and food-handling procedures.