You may remember that back in February Heston Blumenthal was widely reported as having voluntarily closed his world-famous restaurant, The Fat Duck in Bray near Windsor, because of a mystery illness affecting diners there.
The widely-held impression (including by me) at the time was that this was voluntary action taken as soon as it became clear that there was a problem, and that Blumenthal was doing the courageous thing – at great financial cost to his business – rather than endangering his customers’ health.
Satirical magazine Private Eye was rather more sceptical, noting at the time that Blumenthal was getting a remarkably easy ride from the media. (No doubt they had in mind “tame journalist” interviews like the one conducted by The Guardian‘s Matthew Fort on 1 March.)
The Health Protection Agency published its report on 10 September (considerably later than it would usually have done, as a result of the swine flu pandemic). It concluded, among other things, that:
- the illness was due to norovirus, probably introduced by shellfish supplied to the restaurant;
- the management of the Fat Duck delayed their response to the problem – and should have notified health officials sooner;
- there were gaps between staff health policy and the enforcement of that policy. To be specific, staff suffering from the illness had returned to work without waiting until they were clear of the symptoms.
The report states that “it quickly became apparent that the restaurant had been aware of illness among diners there since early January 2009”. Yet they didn’t call in their own private environmental health consultant to help investigate the problem until over a month later, in mid-February 2009, by which time new cases were cropping up every day – and it was nearly another two weeks after that before the HPA and the local authority were notified, after the restaurant had already been voluntarily closed and deep cleaning carried out.
Reporting on the release of the HPA report, Private Eye juxtaposed a quotation from Blumenthal in March (“It is categorically not food poisoning, we know that”) with one from the report: (“There was a large outbreak of food poisoning among diners at the Fat Duck…”) – and lambasted the restaurant:
So, far from taking “voluntary” action at the first sign of trouble, the restaurant waited six weeks before notifying the authorities that anything was amiss. The Fat Duck went on serving its £130-a-head tasting menu, including sewage-contaminated oysters, fully aware that there was a very strong possibility of diners remembering their meals at the world’s second-best restaurant for all the wrong reasons – as they now do.
Blumenthal’s PR agency seem to have done a remarkably good job of damage limitation in the short term – the general response in the media to The Fat Duck’s troubles was overwhelmingly sympathetic. And I don’t doubt that, as Blumenthal asserts in the Matthew Fort interview, every restaurant in the world does get customer complaints about illness.
But I’d have been far more impressed if the restaurant hadn’t apparently taken so long to address the problem decisively. From 29 January there were new cases of illness on a daily basis, rising to over 10 a day from 7 February. Yet it wasn’t until 12 February that environmental health experts were on site to investigate. When it takes that long for the warning signs to be spotted and acted upon, there’s something wrong somewhere.
As it is, by building Blumenthal up so much (they described him at the time as “fanatical” about kitchen hygiene) I can’t help thinking that in the longer term his PR team may have done his reputation more damage than good.