Nordstrom Hit With Typhoid Outbreak, And Finds Limited Options

Nordstrom (NYSE:JWN) customers in San Francisco got an unpleasant surprise on Friday (May 3): a typhoid alert. The chain said a cook for the Nordstrom Cafe at the Stonestown Galleria mall in San Francisco has been diagnosed with typhoid fever, and customers who ate there on April 16, 17, 18, 20 or 27 should watch out for signs of the disease.

Yes, such things still happen in the 21st century—there are tens of millions of typhoid fever cases every year worldwide, although only a few hundred are in the U.S. But what's going to stick with many customers is that it took 17 days—more than two weeks—for Nordstrom to tell customers that there was a potentially life-threatening disease outbreak.

That, arguably, is part of Nordstrom's biggest problem here: communication. Typhoid is easily treatable, but it's rare and scary to most customers. Why would Nordstrom wait so long to warn them?

The reality is that it can take as long as a month for someone who contracts typhoid to begin showing symptoms—and when they show up, they develop gradually. (If this sounds painfully like how payment-card breaches show themselves, the parallel is unfortunately apt.) Only after the victim's symptoms are bad enough to see a doctor, and the doctor gets test results back and they're positive for typhoid, can the case be reported to the health department—and that's who will communicate with the public.

The good news is that the infected line cook would have spread the disease only if he failed to wash his hands properly after a bathroom break. If standard food-handling sanitation was observed, there shouldn't be any further contagion. The better news is that Nordstrom issued its own statement, which offered free testing at local clinics for anyone who might have been exposed.

Should the retailer have done more? Nordstrom didn't make public an estimate of how many customers ate at the restaurant those days, which clearly it could have generated—but the resulting estimate almost certainly would have been high, since one line cook doesn't touch every order. And depending on how automated the kitchen is, and how many customers paid with credit or debit cards, it might have been possible to target customers with the greatest chance of contact with the infected cook—but that probably wouldn't have satisfied the San Francisco health department.

In the end, any retailer that sells ready-to-eat food has limited options in a case like this. That's probably best for public health—there's no chance of the retailer burying or publicly minimizing the risk—but it's a long way from what any retailer wants customers thinking about.

For more:

- See this NBC Bay Area story
- See this San Francisco Chronicle story

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