County health experts not interested in finding culprit

As a former biology major and lab employee, Maggie Pike knows food-borne viruses and bacteria more intimately than most restaurateurs. She has seen them under a microscope — and she’s seen the havoc one case of hepatitis can wreak on a restaurant owner.

“It terrified me,” said Pike, who describes the experience to help her employees understand the importance of food safety.

“I think she’s extremely careful with food,” said Kelsea Falls, an employee Pike sent home a few weeks ago when Falls came to work with a slight sniffle.

Nonetheless, someone contaminated the fruit plate that was part of Pike’s catered buffet for the State Forestry Commission meeting in Forest Grove’s Community Auditorium Friday, March 15. Fifteen people became sick with norovirus afterward.

The culprit wasn’t necessarily a Maggie’s Buns employee, said Paul Lewis, deputy health officer for Washington County. It could have been a conference participant.

“It’s so contagious that just a tiny little bit can contaminate things,” Lewis said.

Unlike salmonella, norovirus is not food-based and can just as easily be spread through a contaminated door handle as a contaminated fruit plate.

“It’s fecal-oral,” said Lewis, meaning it spreads from a contaminated person’s careless wipe and unwashed hand to another person’s mouth.

Lewis said the source of the contamination will probably never be known. Through stool samples from some conference participants and Maggie’s Buns employees, county health experts were able to identify the illness and its source (the fruit). With those main goals accomplished, Lewis said, their work on this case is over: “We’re back to diabetes and obesity.”

But the health department didn’t sample all of Pike’s employees, so her team can’t be cleared of the contamination.

Pike points out that neither she nor her food preppers were sick either before or after the event — and that none of her patrons at a different event got sick from a fruit plate that had been prepared at the same time by the same people.

Patron after patron recounts Pike’s food-safety caution — cleaning food surfaces with bleach, tossing out leftovers.

“Among all the caterers I have worked with in the past two years,” Shawn Morford wrote in a letter to Pike, “you were the one caterer who seemed the most fussy about food safety.”

“I go above and beyond,” said Pike, describing her melon-handling procedure: wash the outside, peel it on a cutting board, wash the peeled melon, cut it with a different knife — on a different cutting board.

Over the past 10 years, county inspections of Pike’s restaurant have produced 14 scores in the 90s, six in the 80s and zero in the 70s. Below 70 is failing.

In 2010 and 2011, a large majority of Washington County’s 1,000-plus restaurants scored in the 80s.

When Alisa Bruno, an environmental health specialist with Washington County, visited Pike last Tuesday to break the news about the norovirus, Bruno and a colleague also conducted a two-hour inspection. They interviewed Pike, watched employees work, and checked for food-safety violations.

All was well, Bruno said.

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