The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe truffle oil was the culprit in a Salmonella outbreak that sickened 159 people who ate at a Washington DC restaurant.
Although the CDC didn’t name the restaurant, details in their report suggest it’s Fig & Olive, a French-inspired chain that specializes in preparing dishes with olive oil. The company has locations in both cities cited in the CDC report. And, the Fig & Olive was slapped with lawsuits for Salmonella infections that occurred during the period discussed.
The infections at the DC restaurant couldn’t conclusively be linked to a single food, but evidence “strongly suggested that truffle oil was the likely source of the outbreak,” the CDC said. Among that evidence was the fact that 89 percent of those infected ate foods containing truffle oil. One of those cases was an employee who ate a truffle oil-containing item that wasn’t offered on the menu.
The prospect of an outbreak started coming to the fore on September 8, 2015 when the DC Department of Health received two alarming phone calls. First, a customer reported getting sick after eating at a restaurant. Then, emergency room personnel reported four additional cases of foodborne illness that arose after people ate at that restaurant.
The DCDOH immediately began investigating the matter, and out of concern, suspended the restaurant’s license from September 10-15. During this time, authorities had closed the Fig & Olive in DC and it didn’t reopen until after the DCDOH approved its Risk Control Plan, the Washington Post reported.
Based on information provided by patrons, DCDOH deemed six foods as “significantly associated” with the infections. Three of them–beef carpaccio, truffle mushroom croquette, and truffle risotto–contained truffle oil. Authorities collected a variety of food samples from the restaurant, and laboratory testing revealed the truffle fries were positive for Salmonella, said the CDC.
After the DCDOH issued a nationwide call for information about potential infections, they discovered that infections linked to the DC restaurant extended to 11 states, likely because many people were visiting the city during Labor Day weekend. Moreover, Los Angeles health officials reached out to report that they were dealing with a similar problem at the same restaurant in their jurisdiction.
Cases of Salmonella were appearing at the Fig & Olive in West Hollywood, according to a LA Times article published on September 29, 2015. Furthermore, it revealed the company removed items containing truffle oil from the menu in LA and DC.
With infections popping up on both coasts, the Food and Drug Administration and state authorities went to investigate a commissary in NY that supplied the Washington and LA restaurants. But they were unable to collect samples because the facility was closed down. It ceased operations less than a week after DC health officials started receiving reports about the Salmonella infections.
When the Washington Post questioned Fig & Olive’s president, Gary Galy, about the sudden closing of their New York facility he admitted they “accelerated the closing” of their commissary. But, he said it was because the facility was “in fact, not necessary anymore.” According to Galy, the company had hired a new corporate chef who streamlined the production process so each restaurant could make all items in-house.
“It seems a bit more than a coincidence that the same restaurant is having salmonella issues on each coast,” food safety attorney Bill Marler told the LA Times in a September 2015. “It certainly raises the specter that there may well be a common ingredient that is causing this bi-coastal problem,” Marler added.
Authorities are now comfortable concluding that the common ingredient in the DC Salmonella outbreak was truffle oil. The CDC also added that if it wasn’t for such a timely public health response more people would have likely been infected.