Legal loophole allows zoo restaurants to skip health inspections

Legal loophole allows zoo restaurants to skip health inspections »Play Video

PORTLAND, Ore. – Restaurants at the Oregon Zoo went six years without outside health inspections, but a recent norovirus outbreak could change that going forward.

One hundred thirty-five people came down with diarrhea and nausea, and state health investigators say lab tests confirmed five cases were norovirus and it is the suspected cause in the rest.

KATU's news partner Willamette Week was first to report that the zoo repeatedly turned away Multnomah County food safety inspectors. A zoo spokesperson said it has no record of saying no to outside food inspectors. But the zoo hasn't been inspected by Multnomah County since 2006. That;s when a 2006 state legal opinion found restaurants owned by a government entity don;t need a license. The zoo is run by metro-regional government and in recent years the zoo had been inspecting its own kitchens.

But then there was the norovirus outbreak earlier this month that hit the 135 people attending one of three privately-catered events over three days at the Oregon Zoo, including dozens of employees from Women’s Health Care Associates based in Beaverton.

Fruit salad is the suspected food source for the outbreak but the ultimate source of the norovirus is human feces.

In response, the zoo closed four kitchen areas for deep cleaning, including the AfriCafe, The Cascade Grill and the zoo's catering kitchen. Multnomah County food inspectors said they spent three hours at the zoo and found no food preparation policies or procedures that needed to be changed.

Twice in 2006 and 2008, Multnomah County's health department said it offered to contract with the zoo for voluntary food inspections, but the two sides did not agree and the outside inspections did not take place.

On Wednesday, a county spokesperson said employees were hopeful the zoo would contract for future inspections. The zoo’s marketing manager said she couldn't comment on what would happen in the future.