Norovirus, Noma & PR spin. 5

They say a week is a long time in politics, maybe somebody should ask the owners of Noma how a week feels, after being on the end of such an amount of negative publicity about their Norovirus outbreak. Let me introduce the main players:


Noma & it’s chef, Rene Redzepi, have basically been hailed as the second coming, since dislodging el Bulli from the summit of the 50Best Restaurant list in 2010 (by the way, it was leaked here first). An alumni of el Bulli, Redzepi has employed this knowledge & technique, couple with his love for all things foraged & local. Although his 10 day pop-up appearance at Claridges in London, was less well received by a general paying public being charged £195 per person plus drinks.


Norovirus comes in the guise of a few names: Winter vomitting bug & Roskilde Sickness. It is in actual fact a genetically diverse group of single-stranded RNA (An RNA virus is a virus that has RNA (ribonucleic acid) as its genetic material.), non-enveloped viruses in the Caliciviridae family. which sounds long winded, but essentially means to retard it you should take the following steps according to the HPA (Health Protection Agency):

Good hygiene helps limit outbreaks. Wash your hands with soap and water after contact with someone who is ill, and after using the toilet, especially if you have symptoms.

At home, clean hard surfaces with detergent then disinfect with a bleach solution, especially around the toilet, and clean up vomit promptly, to reduce risk of infection.

Where a bleach solution is mentioned, it requires a 1.5% – 7.5% solution of household bleach in water to sanitise work surfaces which may have been exposed to pathogens. Hand washing with soap and water is an effective method for reducing the transmission of norovirus.

So the scene is set, and hopefully I can lay out the facts in a timeline fashion for you.

  • Noma had its norovirus outbreak in week 7 (February 12th – 16th, the restaurant is closed Monday & Sunday).
  • Initial indication comes in the form of an email from a Danish couple, to inform Noma they had become ill after dining there, but goes unread by somebody who can read Danish until the 18th.
  • Second email arrives from another couple complaining of illness. Both emails arrive on 14th & 15th February; the two couples dined at Noma on 12th & 13th respectively.
  • 15th February, an un-named kitchen assistant suffers from vomiting & illness after service and is advised not to come to work the following day.
  • On 20th February, Noma report these two customer outbreaks to  The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration (DVFA), but not the kitchen assistant incident.
  • After inspection by the authorities, they downgrade Noma’s hygiene rating from 1(best) to 2 on a 1-4 scale.
  • Story breaks in the mainstream Danish media with newspaper ‘Politiken‘ first on the 8th of March
  • 10th March, Noma releases statement on the norovirus outbreak on their website.
  • The same day: Journalist, Lisa Abend writes article for Time magazine clearly with support from Rene Redzepi.
  • 11th March, toll rises to 72*.

Some of you are probably asking why I’ve mentioned the Abend/Time article. I have lost any respect for the author of that article, and quiet frankly just stops short of an advertorial for the Danish eatery.

The Abend/Time article paints a picture that Noma was unlucky, and that due to the high profile of Noma the story has been exaggerated. The facts are these;

  • 72* people had food poisoning from Noma because systems failed.
  • The sink that didn’t have hot water was only fixed after, according to DVFA, their visit – a full week after the incident first broke.
  • The food which was prepared by the un-named kitchen assistant (chilli & dill at least, according to the DVFA report) wasn’t destroyed. But used in staff food the following Tuesday, a full 4 days after he/she had reported their illness & giving potential to spread the virus within the team .
  • Is any of this mentioned in the Abend/Time article? No, instead the author seems to care about the fact that Rene Redzepi picked up 50 new twitter followers in an hour, because Justin Bieber might be coming for dinner.
For somebody who is such a prolific tweeter, Mr Redzepi was strangely silent for 3days whilst twitter went in to a rabid frenzy; nothing, not a jot. And let’s not forget, this is the chef who would happily tweet a picture of him & his team flicking their middle fingers to no show tables. So when Noma released its statement, Mr Redzepi tweeted to his 55,676 followers:
Dear friends thank you for your concern. Here are the facts! Best wishes Rene Redzepi and the entire noma crew
Was it the facts? Well sort of; Noma have tried to play down the no hot water in a sink, despite it appearing in a damming report circulating the public domain. And  for those of you that havn’t worked in professional kitchens, there is this ingrained, macho, un-written rule about letting the team down if you go absent with illness. It’s just wrong, & whilst DVFA maybe satisfied by the noises coming from Noma over sending people home etc, it’s a little bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. In the UK, if a food handler is diagnosed as positive, with any contagious food poisoning they are not permitted back to work until they have provided 3 negative stool samples over an extended period of time.
Mr Redzepi posted, in his statement on the Noma website:
We have been in direct contact with all the customers affected.
Yet curiously Mark Nilsson tweeted to Mr Redzepi the same day:
@ReneRedzepiNoma you wrote that all guests were contacted? We got sick.really sick.. And were not contacted.
There is an even bigger picture of the whole PR spin this weekend, taking the Abend/Time article out of the equation, it just amuses me. Are journalists & writers so scared of PR companies & high profile chefs, that despite that fact that 72* people suffered after eating at Noma because of failing systems, the likes of Abend, Bruni & co still feel the need to blow smoke up Redzepi’s arse? Are they worried what to say to Mr Redzepi in April, when he probably won’t be top of the 50 Best restaurant list?
Ultimately I have respect for Noma & Mr Redzepi, I really do. But failing systems and PR spin is no substitute for prevention.
*Note: The figure of 72 was being report as the number of casualties rose at the time of writing. The restaurant have allegedly contested this.


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