Sunday, April 15, 2007

When a what-if looms large

Biblical-scale rain, snow and wind kept consumers home in many sections of the country on Saturday and Sunday, but restaurateurs in those areas probably had a less stressful weekend than the management of two Whataburgers in temperate south Texas. An employee who worked at both outlets of the fast-food chain has tested positive for the hepatitis A virus, according to local press reports. No one else has reported being stricken, but the chain said it’s been fielding 20 calls a day since the state health department issued an alert about the possible exposure. And the worst may be yet to come.

The employee reportedly worked at the unit in Harlingen, not far north of the Mexican border, during the first 12 days of March, then switched to the store in Raymondville for roughly the last two weeks of the month. The virus can have an incubation period of about a month. That means the Raymondville operator won’t know for a few more weeks if the business will be subjected to the nightmare of an outbreak. Call after call, day after day, for two more weeks, always wondering if the next one will be the sign of trouble.

We seem to be writing about outbreaks of food-borne illness with greater frequency, often citing the tally of victims, how many lawsuits have been filed, or how the stigma has affected business. Tougher to peg is the mental impact, certainly on the victims and their families, but also on a restaurant’s staff, management and ownership. The situation in south Texas is a blurry but still telling snapshot of just how mind- and emotion-scrambling a food-safety problem can be—even when no problem has truly materialized. And, hopefully, there won’t be one there, today or in a few weeks.

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