PORTLAND – A popular Portland restaurant was investigated this month as a possible source of food-borne illness, the second such investigation of the restaurant in 18 months.
Health officials zeroed in on Petite Jacqueline after a food handler and a patron were stricken by the same bacterial illness on June 1, but they could not prove the restaurant’s food was the cause – or that it wasn’t – because too much time had passed since the people who became sick were exposed.
Liz Koenigsberg, the restaurant’s part owner and general manager, said the restaurant is fully cooperating with state health inspectors and the Maine Center for Disease Control.
“It has not been concluded by any means that the source of illness was from Petite Jacqueline,” Koenigsberg said. “All of our food-handling practices are safe.”
The French bistro is a popular West End spot that has been nominated for a coveted James Beard Award.
Michael Russell, the manager of Portland’s Environmental Health and Safety program and the certified state health inspector who followed up on the illness complaint, said in an email Wednesday that the restaurant needed to change some of its food-handling practices.
“I observed some risk factors and made recommendations to correct (them),” he said.
The investigation highlights the difficulty of tracing the source of a food-borne illness, unless there is an outbreak involving many people.
The gestation period for campylobacter is two to five days, said Dr. Stephen Sears, the state epidemiologist. It is diagnosed when someone is sick enough to see a doctor and the physician orders tests of the patient’s stool sample. Doctors are required to report positive test results to the state CDC, Sears said.
Once the state has positive test results from multiple people and suspects a common source of the illness, further tests are needed to determine if the bacteria in each patient is the same strain.
“We did not have the organisms to do that,” Sears said. “By the time we found out about it, (the samples) had already been discarded by the laboratory.”
Sears said it’s extremely difficult to link an illness to the restaurant because a sample of tainted food also is needed. Restaurants typically turn over their food rather quickly, he said.
“The commonality is the restaurant, but we don’t have any other commonalities,” Sears said.
Petite Jacqueline has now been investigated as a potential source of food-borne illness twice since January 2012.
The two people affected in the latest incident had laboratory-confirmed cases of campylobacter, a bacteria that also was present in last year’s complaint. One of the people affected last month was an employee and the other was a customer.
The spouse of the customer also fell ill and the sickness was deemed a “probable case” of food-borne illness, according to the complaint.
The patrons ate at the restaurant May 29 and became ill on June 1, the same day as the employee, the inspection report says.
According to the Maine CDC, campylobacter is a bacteria that causes diarrheal issues, as well as stomach pain, tiredness, fever, nausea and vomiting in humans.
In 2012, campylobacter was the most common food-borne illness in the state. The case rate for campylobacter was 189 per 100,000 people — more than the case rate for salmonella, which occurred at a rate of 161 per 100,000 people, according to the CDC.
Campy can spread to humans if they consume meat that is not cooked well or consume unpasteurized milk, contaminated water or cheese.
It can also be spread from human to human through poor hygiene.
According to the complaint lodged on June 19 by a state epidemiologist, a couple became ill after eating at Petite Jacqueline on May 29. They shared charcuterie, an assortment of shaved meats and pates.
One of those people also ate a hanger steak cooked medium rare for dinner, fell ill and later had the illness confirmed as campylobacter. The spouse had onion soup and a pork chop and also fell ill, but is only considered “a probable case,” apparently because no lab test was conducted.
“(The) employee reported handling and consuming several food items at the restaurant, including chicken terrine and steaks,” said the complaint received by Rebecca Walsh, a state health inspection supervisor.
Russell followed up on the complaint on June 19. The inspection did not reveal a source of bacteria, but Russell did list some corrective actions that needed to be taken in an inspection report.
Russell’s report said the restaurant should stop selling raw, aged cheese. State law prohibits eating establishments from selling raw, or unpasteurized, cheese unless it has been aged at a temperature of 35 degrees or higher for at least 60 days and is appropriately labeled.
Koenigsberg contends that the restaurant was selling appropriately aged cheese and is still working with health officials to clarify the rules. Russell said the eatery can resume selling the cheese as long as the “raw milk” labels are changed to “non-pasteurized.”
Russell also noted in his report that the restaurant uses the same color cutting boards for both meat and produce, which could result in accidental cross-contamination even though the boards were being sterilized. And he called on the restaurant to cover food items in the refrigerator to protect against contamination.
According to city records, Petite Jacqueline was inspected in January of 2012 after several people claimed to have gotten sick with cramps and diarrhea after dining there. A group of six people also shared an appetizer of charcuterie, and had a variety of meat dishes for dinner.
One member of the party went to the emergency room at Maine Medical Center and tested positive for campylobacter. The investigation of that incident also could not directly link the sickness to the restaurant’s food.
Petite Jacqueline failed the January 2012 inspection, as well as a February 2012 inspection. It was not inspected again until September of that year, when it passed.
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: