Chef: Virus could have caused Fat Duck illnesses

Heston Blumenthal outside the entrance to his Fat Duck restaurant in Berkshire, England.
The mystery illness that forced famed chef Heston Blumenthal to temporarily close his award-winning Fat Duck restaurant last month was possibly norovirus, a highly contagious stomach bug, Blumenthal said Thursday.

After exhaustive tests of the restaurant in Berkshire, England, and of staff and customers, norovirus was the only potential cause that had been found, Blumenthal told Australia’s Hospitality magazine. “It is categorically not food poisoning. We know that,” Blumenthal told the magazine. “For the last five years we’ve been sending food off every month for sampling, and I don’t know any other restaurant in the country that does that. We also have a company that has been looking after all our health and safety stuff for the last five years.” Noroviruses are a group of viruses that cause “stomach flu,” or gastroenteritis, according to the Atlanta, Georgia-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of norovirus illness usually include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping — all of which were reported among diners who fell ill. In most people, symptoms last for a couple of days, according to the CDC. Health authorities called Blumenthal’s mention of norovirus “a bit premature” and said they are still investigating the outbreak. “Like with any other investigation of the sort that we do, we don’t report on our findings until we have conclusive evidence,” said a spokeswoman for the Thames Valley Health Protection Unit, who declined to be named, in line with policy. “We’re still interviewing and working through all the diners and trying to get a clearer picture.”

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The investigation will still take several weeks to finish, she said. Blumenthal voluntarily closed his Michelin-starred The Fat Duck in late February after scores of diners reported getting sick. He reopened it last week. Located in the picturesque village of Bray, the restaurant is renowned for such eccentric items as snail porridge, salmon poached in licorice gel, and scrambled egg and bacon ice cream. Diners must book months in advance to get a table. The restaurant charges £130 ($185) for the tasting menu and £98 ($140) for a la carte. Blumenthal told the Australian magazine he was shocked that anything could have gone wrong at the restaurant because of the stringent food safety measures he has in place. Since the restaurant’s closing, some 200 tests have been done on food processes, along with tests on all the staff and 80 swabs of the environment, and all have come up negative for food poisoning or hygiene issues, Blumenthal said. “The only thing that has come up is that three staff and five customers have been tested positive for something called norovirus,” he said. People can become infected with norovirus in several ways, including eating contaminated food, touching contaminated surfaces and then putting their hands to their mouths, or having direct contact with an infected person, the CDC says. The virus can spread easily from person to person. Support for the restaurant throughout the ordeal has been “incredible,” Blumenthal told the magazine. “It’s affected the restaurant big time because [we] had to cancel 800 people because of the closure. But in terms of the business and people wanting to come in, then no,” he said. Blumenthal spoke to the publication as he was in Melbourne, Australia, for a food and wine festival.