Olive Garden, Red Lobster Identified As Tainted Salad Sources

Salads that gave severe stomach ailments to more than 200 people in Iowa and Nebraska have been traced to meals served by two Darden restaurant chains, Olive Garden and Red Lobster. But the chains are saying that, given the shelf-life of these prepared salads is about two weeks and that no cases have been reported in those two states in a month, the problem seems to have passed.

"We are fully confident along with health officials that in those states the product is out of the supply chain," said Rich Jeffers, a spokesman for Orlando, Florida-based Darden Restaurants.

The Food and Drug Administration identified the salad, supplied by a Mexican farm, as responsible for the cyclospora outbreak in those two states, Reuters reported, adding that the FDA said it is not yet clear if it was the culprit in 14 other states as well, and the investigation will continue.

Darden also owns Longhorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52, the Capital Grille, Eddie V's and Yard House.

The problem here is not the selling of tainted salads, although a restaurant selling contaminated produce is definitely bad. (OK, really bad.) The issue is how the chain handled this. Did they issue a news release the instant they learned of this problem? (According to their news release page, the answer is "no." Indeed, they are displaying no statement on this incident at all.) Did they access CRM databases and immediately alert customers who had consumed the problematic salads? What compensation have they offered to impacted customers, both those who got sick and those who luckily didn't?

With the various reports of tainted produce in recent years, American consumers seem willing to forgive and forget when the occasional restaurant sells contaminated items, as long as no recklessness is alleged. If the chain purchased it from a well-regarded supplier and disposed of older product and washed everything properly, customers can forgive the occasional disaster.

But if customers feel that the chain knew of the problem and continued to serve food with no customer notification—after all, in the beginning, the chain didn't necessarily know which food product was the culprit—that is the kind of situation that can cause mass customer defections.

For more:
- See Reuters story

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