Food safety at the Oregon Zoo

December 27, 2012 - 8:13pm

We work closely with the media everyday at the zoo. While most of the time we feel they accurately report our information, at times, it seems that information we provide is omitted or used out of context in the interest of sensationalizing a story. We're grateful to have a 125-year relationship with our community, and we remain committed to open, honest communication with that community. Recently, stories regarding food safety at the Oregon Zoo have circulated in the press and social media. Thank you for coming directly to the source for accurate information about this matter.

How does the Oregon Zoo ensure food safety?

The Oregon Zoo conducts its own inspections to ensure proper food handling and safety practices are in place. All food handlers are required to obtain a food handlers permit by Multnomah County.

Why was the zoo inspected by Multnomah County up until 2006 and not since then?

Multnomah County Health Department notified the Oregon Zoo in 2006 that they would no longer be inspecting zoo facilities. The county's decision was based on the Attorney General's determination that government-operated food services do not meet the requirement for inspection as defined by state law. Although the zoo did not choose to pay for consultative inspections, it never turned away county inspectors, and food safety inspections are conducted three times every day by zoo staff. The implication that health department inspections would have prevented a norovirus outbreak has no basis in fact. Deputy director of OHA's Public Health Division Dr. Jean O'Connor noted that while norovirus is common in the winter months, the risk at the zoo is no greater than in any other public setting.

What is the law that exempts the zoo from having Multnomah County Health Inspections?

Under ORS 624.020, a "person" may not operate a restaurant without a license. ORS 174.100 provides that as used in the statute laws of this state, unless the context or an applicable definition requires otherwise "person" includes individuals, corporations, associations, firms, partnerships, limited liability companies and joint stock companies."

This definition does not include governmental entities and there is nothing in the context of ORS 624 that would indicate governmental entities were intended by the legislature to be regulated. For years the Department of Justice has advised that unless "person" as used in ORS 624 is specifically defined to include governmental entities, that term does not include governmental entities. Learn more about Oregon administrative rules here.

Was there a norovirus outbreak at the Oregon Zoo?

During the first week of December, attendees of private events in the zoo's banquet facilities became ill. After investigating the circumstances with the help of experts from the Multnomah County Health Department and the Oregon Health Authority, officials determined the cause of illness to be norovirus.

How did the zoo address the outbreak?

While the Oregon Health Authority stated that there was no public health concern, the Oregon Zoo felt obligated to take the most proactive course of action and temporarily close the kitchens for a deep sanitization. We closed four of our kitchens (Cascade Grill kitchen, Cascade banquet kitchen, AfriCafe kitchen, AfriCafe/Kalahari banquet kitchen) for two hours on Friday while our staff worked with experts from the Oregon Health Authority to complete this deep cleaning.

Is the public at risk from eating at the zoo?

According to the Oregon Health Authority, the risk at the zoo is no greater than in any other public setting. People are no more likely to get sick from eating at the zoo than they are from going to a grocery store, cultural event or school.

What is norovirus?

Norovirus is a commonly encountered virus, most prevalent during the winter months. The Center for Disease Control reports that 21 million Americans were affected by norovirus in 2011. Multnomah County Department of Health reports that they encounter norovirus outbreaks every day. Learn more about noroviruses.

How is norovirus transmitted?

According to the Center for Disease Control, "Most outbreaks of norovirus illness happen when infected people spread the virus to others. But, norovirus can also spread by consuming contaminated food or water and touching things that have the virus on them."

What can people do to protect themselves?

Take all the precautions that you normally would to prevent any illnesses, such as washing your hands frequently. Norovirus can be transmitted the same way colds and flu are transmitted.