During October and November 2016, over 1,000 customers and staff reported gastroenteritis after eating at all 23 branches of a restaurant group in the United Kingdom. The outbreak coincided with a new menu launch and norovirus was identified as the causative agent. We conducted four retrospective cohort studies; one among all restaurant staff and three in customers at four branches. We investigated the dishes consumed, reviewed recipes, interviewed chefs and inspected restaurants to identify common ingredients and preparation methods for implicated dishes. Investigations were complicated by three public health agencies concurrently conducting multiple analytical studies, the complex menu with many shared constituent ingredients and the high media attention. The likely source was a contaminated batch of a nationally distributed ingredient, but analytical studies were unable to implicate a single ingredient. The most likely vehicle was a new chipotle chilli product imported from outside the European Union, that was used uncooked in the implicated dishes. This outbreak exemplifies the possibility of rapid spread of infectious agents within a restaurant supply chain, following introduction of a contaminated ingredient. It underlines the importance of appropriate risk assessments and control measures being in place, particularly for new ingredients and ready-to-eat foods.
Keywords: United Kingdom; food-borne infections; norovirus; outbreak; ready-to-eat products; restaurant chains.