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Rumor Control: BLD's Hollandaise Hell

The Eater inbox is flooded with all sorts of info daily, but some emails are taken with a grain of salt: disgruntled employees bitching about their former employer; obvious shills claiming this or that restaurant is the "best ever"; and claims that someone got food poisoning from an eatery. We're going to address the latter today because we're all about spreading gossip, but we're also fond of nipping inaccurate rumors in the bud.

A couple weeks ago we got a food poisoning email targeting BLD, Neal and Amy Fraser's casual spot on Beverly Boulevard: "A girlfriend of mine ate Eggs Benedict at BLD last Sunday and wound up in the hospital with Salmonella. She is still in bed and hasn't kept a thing down since then. Her husband called the Health dept and the health dept informed them that she was not the only victim and went there for an inspection. Apparently the hollandaise sauce was the culprit." Our policy on food poisoning claims is as follows: Most diners don't know the difference between foodborne illness and an upset tummy, and we won't blast a restaurant without knowing the facts. While this email sounded official (healt dept., etc.), we couldn't post the rumor without verifying it, and sometimes that takes time and womanpower we can't always muster. But then we received a few more emails.

Two weeks later, a respected Eater tipster claimed that they heard 30 to 40 people got sick from the hollandaise at BLD: "I had some great blueberry ricotta pancakes and one of their egg dishes with hollandaise sauce on Labor Day!!! Please let me know if you heard about this or if the agents are starting mad rumors." Another email came this week, but the number was raised to 52 people, a 7-year-old kid losing seven pounds, and that it happened last weekend. Two things at work here: First, now we know it's time to make some phone calls because one food poisoning claim is one thing, but a second and third piques our interest. But two, the rumor mill is churning, and like that game Telephone we played as kids, the story gets bigger and more dramatic as its passed from one person the the next. Time to set the record straight.

According to owner Amy Fraser, on August 26, about 35 diners (that she knows of) contracted salmonella from a bad batch of hollandaise sauce. Some were violently ill for a few days, others for more than a week. Now before you go all crazy and say you'll never eat in that restaurant again, know this: It could have happened anywhere, anytime, and the fact that BLD has a smart staff and caring owners, the problem was addressed from the get go. You might not get that sort of attention everywhere.

After the first few calls, Fraser contacted the department of health, who sent an inspector to investigate the claims. The DOH also received calls from BLD customers. All the facts led to the hollandaise sauce; one batch, on one particular day, not all the hollandaise forever. While there's risk in eating undercooked meat (rare burgers) and raw egg dishes (Caesar dressing), hollandaise is particularly vulnerable to foodborne illness because the egg yolks aren't fully cooked, and the sauce isn't served hot (eggs should be heated to at least 135 degrees). It's basically a cesspool for bacteria growth; delicious, but a bacteria bin nonetheless.

The DOH inspector told the Frasers that this particular strain of salmonella starts in the chicken's ovaries, so the egg is contaminated before the shell is formed. Chickens---even on organic farms---aren't tested individually (that's just not cost-effective), so it's difficult to weed out the hens with contaminated eggs. That's why we cook eggs, why disclaimers are placed on menus alerting you that foodborne illness come from undercooked food, and why you accept that risk simply by ordering the hollandaise. The inspectors and the Frasers had no way of knowing if it was one egg or a whole bunch, or what organic poultry farm it came from. The restaurant now uses non-organic pasteurized eggs for the hollandaise---which they toss every couple of hours---and Caesar dressing, but regular organic eggs are still used in all other cooked dishes.

Last night, FOX 11 ran this story about food poisoning. Of course, it has all the makings of a shock-and-awe FOX story, but watch and you'll learn about a girl getting sick from a taco stand, the mother making calls to the DOH and the stand getting closed down. According to Dr. Roshan Reporter, whose DOH office investigates food illness claims, a restaurant will only be shut down if there are unsafe conditions, "if it's something that can't be easily corrected." The on-site inspector said BLD is well-run and clean, so it did not lose points to its current A letter grade and it didn't close.

Through insurance, the Frasers are covering all healthcare costs and lost wages for those affected. They were eager to talk about the whole incident, and we can honestly say it was without spin or excuses. It's better to have the correct story out there before the rumor mill takes hold. When asked if any diners threatened to sue or were freaked out by the incident, Amy said: "Most people understand and said they'd be back. One guy was in the hospital for a week, and he still said 'I love your restaurant.'"

The health department responds to every foodborne illness report they receive, but about half are investigated. Anyone can file a report here.