June 27, 2013

Portland bistro probed as possible source of food-borne illness

Petite Jacqueline is described as a 'commonality' between a food handler and a patron who fell ill.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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