First it was the Fat Duck, and now it’s Noma – it seems that being rated as the world’s best restaurant says relatively little about standards of hygiene.

More than four-fifths of diners at the Michelin two-starred restaurant in Copenhagen fell ill in a five-day period in mid-February, according to a report by Danish food inspectors on Friday.

Famed for its dishes such as deep-fried reindeer moss and a flowerpot with radishes planted in hazelnut soil, Noma has sparked a boom in Nordic cuisine and has been rated by Restaurant magazine as the world’s best place to eat three years running. René Redzepi, its head chef, is known for foraging for ingredients by the Danish seaside.

Noma is one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants, offering a 10-course tasting menu costing DKr1,500 ($260) to 40 guests at lunch and dinner.

But 63 out of the 78 diners who ate there from February 12-16 fell ill with vomiting and diarrhoea after contracting a norovirus. A kitchen worker also became ill on February 15, but his email that evening to managers was read only three days later because of the weekend.

The inspectors blamed poor hand hygiene and a lack of hot running water in one of the kitchen’s sinks. They also issued a warning as Noma failed to react quickly enough to emails from guests and a kitchen worker saying they had become sick.

“It was a cocktail of different noroviruses brought into the kitchen by an [unsuspecting] employee. Because of poor hand hygiene the food was contaminated. Noma could have also prevented some of the cases if they had read emails [from customers] in time,” Bjorn Wirlander, head of control and enforcement at the Danish food authorities, told the Financial Times.

Noma’s embarrassment is reminiscent of events at the Fat Duck in Bray, west of London – a former recipient of Restaurant’s “world’s best” rating – in 2009 when at least 240 diners suffered gastroenteritis. The outbreak was blamed on contaminated oysters and handling of food by infected staff, and was called the world’s biggest outbreak of a norovirus in a restaurant.

Noma said it was in talks with the affected diners about compensation and had taken steps to improve its procedures. “It is something that affects us all deeply and that we are really sad about,” Peter Kreiner, Noma’s managing director, told Danish newspapers.

The Danish authorities have also downgraded its “smiley rating” for food safety from a big smiley to a small smiley. Mr Wirlander said that meant Noma had to pay for the follow-up inspection itself.

But Noma can draw some succour from the Fat Duck case. Despite the heavy publicity, the Heston Blumenthal-run restaurant still received tens of thousands of calls a day from would-be diners in the aftermath of the outbreak.

Noma is currently booked up until the end of May, so it will discover if the norovirus outbreak affects bookings only on April 8 when its June reservations open. 

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