Dublin's Burrito Crisis: Bad Food, Bad Regulation or Bad Journalism?

Last week, Dublin’s burrito lovers were bereft.

Two of the city centre’s most popular burrito bars, Little Ass Burrito Bar at 32a Dawson Street and Mama’s Revenge at 12 Leinster Street South, were issued with closure orders.

This was according to the rote media reports we often get, listing the names of restaurants hit with such orders, and not very much more.

But both burrito bars are open now, serving wraps of rice and beans with pulled pork and all the trimmings. There won’t be any shortage of Mexican grub any time soon.

So what really happened there? And what does it say about how the media covers Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) closure orders?

The Closures

A closure order is served when there is a breach of food safety legislation, either under the FSAI Act, 1998 or the EC (Official Control of Foodstuffs) Regulations, 2010.

They can be issued for the immediate closure of all, or part, of a food premises — or for all, or some, of its activities. Orders are lifted when an official is satisfied that the restaurant or cafe has improved.

The specific failings that led to these particular closure orders generally were not mentioned in the articles.

That’s likely because the FSAI press release, which served as the basis for the stories, didn’t give much detail.

Detailed reasons for closures are only available through freedom-of-information requests, said Jane Ryder of the FSAI. “That’s just a decision made by us as an authority,” she said.

(We haven’t submitted our FOIA request to the FSAI yet, asking for their reports on these closures, but we will, and we’ll let you know if what they tell us clashes with what the burrito-makers said.)

According to the two burrito businesses, their closures were caused by breaches which had little to do with the safety of eating their product.

Owner of Mama’s Revenge, Anna Woodhouse, says the restaurant’s closure order was issued on grounds of air pollution and lack of kitchen space.

It had nothing to do with the food, she says. Rather, there were some complaints about the smell from their vent onto the street.

“One particular lady found it overwhelming,” says Woodhouse. “No food samples were even taken.”

Philip Martin, the owner of Little Ass Burrito Bar, says the Dawson Street restaurant got a partial closure order to stop a particular activity: bringing raw chicken into the kitchen. (He stresses that this is not to be confused with a full closure order.)

On the day of the FSAI inspection, a sealed box with raw chicken in it was placed on a kitchen surface instead of straight into the fridge. As a result, raw chicken is no longer allowed to be brought to the restaurant.

Within a half hour, Martin says, the problem was fixed. The chicken was sent to the company’s off-site kitchen in Rathmines, to be cooked there. All before the Dawson Street premises even opened that day.

“We dealt with it when it happened,” says Martin. “We were never actually required to close the premises. We were able to trade consistently.”

The Faithful

Martin says that when reports came out last Monday about the closure order, sales at the Dawson Street store dropped by 50 percent compared to the previous week.

In Woodhouse’s case, Mama’s Revenge was closed for refurbishment when the order was issued. And works were still going on when she noticed people sharing the stories online. “It was, of course, very, very emotional for me. It was a lot of bad press,” she says.

Both businesses took to Facebook for damage control. “You see how inaccurate it can be and how damaging it can be to a reputation,” says Woodhouse. “That’s why I had to issue that statement.”

After the kitchen’s final piece of equipment arrived and the refurbishment was done, Mama’s Revenge reopened yesterday.

It would appear that customers haven’t been put off, she says. “We’re doing okay, our business hasn’t been affected because we have a very loyal army of customers.”

On Dawson Street, Martin says the same about his fan base.

After the restaurant’s fall in sales continued into Tuesday, he put up a Facebook post explaining what had happened. He says he was overwhelmed by the support of customers and other businesses, who swamped him with emails, posts, and messages.

“There was a panic and a drop in sales, but then we told people what happened and explained, it actually led to Wednesday being one of the busiest Wednesdays we had in the year, which was nuts,” he says. “We’ve been blown away.”

This upward trend continued into Thursday. He is delighted that customers still trust the business.

“We’re probably going to have to have a big party at some point and thank them all for literally having that level of faith, especially considering how grave the articles portrayed the situation to be,” he says.

How Should We Cover Closure Orders?

The FSAI’s press release was published last Monday, 7 March. So were most of the media reports it generated.

Based on the brief press release, stories popped up across the web: on Newstalk’s website, TheJournal.ieUTV Ireland, BreakingNews.ie and the Irish Times, amongst others. Some highlighted the fact that two burrito bars were on the list.

The press release featured the closure and prohibition orders for the month of February. But by the time the stories ran, most of the orders had already been lifted.

Some of the reports did say that the orders could be lifted when the restaurants complied with standards. Only one report that we saw said that the orders had actually been lifted.

The closure order on Mama’s Revenge was served on 16 February and lifted on 1 March. Little Ass Burrito Bar received its missive on 18 February and it was lifted on 29 February.

Mad Cow Milkshakes, Burgers and Kebabs on Annamoe Road in Cabra — the third Dublin premises to get a closure order — was served on 25 February, and the order was lifted the next day.

So all of these orders were lifted before articles about them appeared in the press. But many of the reports implied that the businesses were still closed.

Martin believes a big reason for his initial drop in business was down to customers thinking Little Ass Burrito was shut, after reading the articles.

Ryder of the FSAI said the press releases include links to a table of closure and reopening dates.

Both Woodhouse and Martin aren’t begrudging of being issued the orders, but were disappointed with the media coverage they received. They were surprised no reporters writing about the closure orders got in touch with them.

Improvements

Yes, the media could be more accurate in its reporting and somewhat less sensational, says Adrian Cummins, CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland.

But as he sees it, the FSAI should provide more details in its press releases and should stop listing restaurants on their website once an order is lifted. Closure orders and improvement orders stay up on the website for three months from the date that a restaurant becomes compliant again.

“We’ve been lobbying the FSAI to change their procedures with regards to this, because if something is printed and published it can be looked up online forever and ever,” he says. “The business owner will have loss of his good name for the time that it’s in place.”

He also believes notices should go up on the FSAI website when a restaurant or café becomes 100 percent compliant again, as this might reduce the negative impact on businesses.

“All they’re trying to do is justify their PR expenditure,” he says of the press releases.

The FSAI’s Ryder disagrees. There’s no need to provide any extra information on press releases to separate serious breaches from minor breaches, she says.

Both partial closure orders and full closure orders are serious, she says, so there’s no need to distinguish between them.

“They’re all as bad as each other in a way,” she says, reiterating that the inspector needs to be of the opinion that there is likely to be a grave and immediate danger to issue a closure order.

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Author:

Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

Reader responses

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Sam
at 16 March 2016 at 10:03

This is ridiculous. A biased piece full of sympathy – and little questioning of – these two burrito shop owners who put public health at risk despite their attempts to make it sound like their failure was no big deal. Every food provider knows the code and should follow it at all times. And inspections can only be done so often. So every failure IS a big deal. It’s not bad journalism to report on these orders.

Aaron
at 16 March 2016 at 17:55

@Sam: The smell of cooked food coming from a vent is a big deal?

Mel Healy
at 18 March 2016 at 10:07

I don’t think the piece is biased. Seems to be a solid piece of reporting that lifts the lid on poor communication practices by a state body and how this is being replicated by mainstream media that never question what’s actually going on.

Yes, we do need proper food safety standards and practices in food establishments. But the FSAI’s system of conveying the information about food orders is a crude sledgehammer. It lacks full transparency and relevant details, confuses consumers with a blanket message that’s often out of date (why not a real-time, constantly updated online database on its website instead of crude PDF tables and vague press releases) and it that may cause excessive damage to the businesses concerned.

On a completely different topic, has the FSAI ever done anything tangible to clamp down on the fake olive oil scam in Ireland?

Lois Kapila
at 18 March 2016 at 15:51

@Mel Healy: Hi Mel, I hadn’t heard about fake olive oils. Thanks for raising that, we’re reading up a bit now.

Tom Weaver
at 21 March 2016 at 18:47

@Lois Kapila: Lois,

The New Yorker of August 13, 2007 has an article “Slippery Business” about adulterated and fake olive oil. It’s a place to start.

Tom

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