Restaurant operators are all too familiar with the perils that result when foodborne illness incidents take place. But now there’s a new reason to fear an outbreak. Labor activists have begun using these incidents to drum up public support for their cause, making any restaurant involved look much worse, for much longer, than it already would. The first target is a big one: Darden.

The latest high-profile food safety incident got its start in late July in Iowa and Nebraska. At last count, the Centers for Disease Control reported 535 cases of Cyclospora infection have been found in 18 states. Cyclospora is a parasite typically spread by the ingestion of food or water contaminated with feces.

Here’s how Seattle-based food safety attorney Bill Marler sums up this incident’s basics on his blog:

“The FDA traceback investigation has confirmed that the salad mix identified by Iowa and Nebraska as being linked to the outbreak of cyclosporiasis in those states was supplied to restaurants in those states by Taylor Farms de Mexico, S. de R.L. de C.V., a processor of foodservice salads. The FDA traceback investigation found that illness clusters at Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants were traced to a common supplier, Taylor Farms de Mexico, S. de R.L. de C.V.”



So who gets sued? The first lawsuit targets Darden’s Olive Garden.

Ron Simon, of Houston food safety law firm Simon & Luke, filed the suit on behalf of a mother and son who became ill after eating at an Olive Garden in Lincoln, NE. In a statement, Simon said "Our clients expected Olive Garden and Taylor Farms to sell food free of human or animal feces.  Through these lawsuits, we will find out how and why this salad became tainted, so we can make sure that it never happens again."

Simon says he represents dozens of Cyclospora victims nationwide and anticipates filing additional lawsuits in the coming days.

In addition to legal fees and the cost of any judgments or settlements that might result, these lawsuits also generate a ton of negative publicity. They can cause customers to remain wary of dining at a restaurant that’s been involved in a foodborne illness incident for a long time.

Now labor activists want to make that bad p.r. last even longer. They’re using this foodborne illness incident to demonize the dining experience at Darden. Here’s the statement from Restaurant Opportunities Center United cofounder and director Saru Jayaraman:

“It is unfortunate to learn that Darden Restaurants Inc. is involved in yet another public health outbreak, sickening hundreds. However, it is never ‘completely safe’ to eat at Red Lobster, Olive Garden and other Darden-owned brands (LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52, The Capital Grille, Eddie V's and Yard House). In addition to paying the lowest wages possible to its employees (as low as $2.13 per hour), not providing health insurance or paid sick days for its workforce of 200,000 people, Darden actively supports blocking paid sick day legislation across the country; these bills often are the only opportunity for a low-wage worker to stay at home and recover instead of going to work sick.

“Just 2 years ago, hundreds were exposed to hepatitis A at a North Carolina Olive Garden location, the outbreak was a direct result of working while sick. In fact, our research shows that the majority (63%) of restaurant workers have worked while sick and 90% of restaurant workers lack paid sick days. Most recently, Darden joined Disney to advocate for ALEC-authored HB655 in Florida, which preemptively banned paid sick bills from passing, despite widespread public support for such measures. Darden, with support from the National Restaurant Association and ALEC, is continuing efforts to preemptively ban local paid sick day ordinances across the country. Some bills override not only paid sick days, but living wage ordinances, wage-theft ordinances and more, all of which make Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and all Darden-owned brands an increasingly toxic place to work and eat.”

Other than coordinated one-day strikes at fast food restaurants, advocates for dramatically improved wages and benefits for restaurant workers haven’t gained much traction so far. We don’t know how much of an impact this move or others like it will have on Darden’s business. But we can see how in an era where a statement like this one can go viral on the Internet in a day or two, this tactic could cause serious damage. Let’s hope it doesn’t.