FARGO — While investigating a tip, public health officials discovered caged pigeons in the basement of a Chinese restaurant in Fargo, prompting the downtown eatery to publicly apologize.

An inspector with Fargo Cass Public Health found a total of eight violations May 8 at King House Buffet, including the pigeons in the basement, according to an investigation report.

Corrective actions were ordered, and no pigeons were present during a follow-up visit on May 9.

Inspectors noted during the initial visit that other corrective actions at King House involved cleaning food contact surfaces, ensuring that handwashing sinks are not used for any other purpose than washing hands, placing eggs in refrigeration immediately and properly storing utensils.

Manager Cindy Chen said people have been calling the restaurant and harassing them about serving pigeon. She said she’s seen hurtful comments circulating online.

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“Please don’t discriminate, because King House has been downtown a long time. We don't want it to close,” she said. “We don’t serve pigeon meat.”

She offered an explanation for how the pigeons ended up in the basement. On May 8, a farmer gave the pigeons to an employee, she said, and the employee thought they could keep them in the basement until they got off work later that day.

Instead, the landlord found out and called the health department, she said.

Grant Larson, director of environmental health with Fargo Cass Public Health, said his department immediately responded that afternoon. “The fear there was that they are possibly using them for a food source in their kitchen. That would’ve been a big health concern,” Larson said.

"There was no indication or evidence that they have been using the pigeon for consumption," he added. "The thorough investigation of the kitchen indicated all the food had appropriate labeling from an approved food source."

Larson said Chen was “overly cooperative” and the cage of about a dozen pigeons was promptly taken out of the building.

He said it was a misunderstanding and a good learning moment for the department. “It was a very unique call,” he said, adding that in his 22 years in public health he’s never responded to a call like this.

Chen acknowledged it was wrong to let the employee store the pigeons in the basement

“We’re trying to do our best. We love our customers. We just hope our customers don't worry about that — no pigeon meat on the buffet. Everything is healthy and wholesale,” she said.

Larson said that according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, animals, including pigeons, may carry disease-causing organisms and can transmit pathogens to humans.

“In other words, if a King House employee were to handle the pigeons, then not wash their hands appropriately, they could potentially transmit the pathogens to consumers through improper handling of approved food or food-related items,” he said.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday, May 21, King House Buffet tried to clear the air and apologize.

"We want to apologize to our customers," the post stated. "We should not let our employees leave the pigeons in our restaurant's basement when farmers brought those here, and we won't do it again in the future. We also want to mention to public that, we don't have live chicken in our basement, and never serve pigeon meat for our customer."

The Chen family took over ownership of King House in 2018. Since then, there have been two routine inspections.

On April 13, 2018, an inspector noted that utensils cannot be stored in the employee handwashing sink, and floors and walls required "more frequent cleaning."

On March 21, an inspector's corrective actions included cleaning the ice machine, labeling the handwashing-only sink and ensuring utensil handles are stored correctly and that employees reach for utensils at the base rather than the food-contact surface.

Chen said lunch traffic on Tuesday was a bit slow, but she’s hopeful customers will continue dining at the restaurant.