How to Prevent Norovirus (And All Foodborne Illnesses) in the Food Service Industry

How to Prevent Norovirus (And All Foodborne Illnesses) in the Food Service Industry

Original article appeared in FOOD MANAGEMENT magazine on June 20, 2016

Several weeks ago, while waiting for a flight, I noticed the gentleman sitting next to me was wearing a jacket with a corporate logo from a food service organization. As it turned out, he was an executive for that company. As we began chatting, he asked me what I did for a living and I responded, “I’m a food safety subject matter expert.” He replied, “People spend too much time training and not enough time getting their work done.” I was astonished, and wondered if that company will soon be in the news because of a foodborne illness outbreak.

Food safety has been a hot topic lately. There were multiple, widespread foodborne illness outbreaks over the past year, which generated a tremendous amount of conversation about food safety. But is that “chatter” enough to keep industry professionals focused long-term? Talking about food safety is one thing, but ensuring that your facility is being proactive is another. Were the conversations and media coverage enough to make all industry professionals follow safety protocols: providing ongoing staff training, cooking food to proper temperature, storing foods safely, avoiding cross-contamination, using reliable suppliers, and getting back to the basic rules to keep guests safe? When foodborne illness isn’t in the headlines, it’s easy to go back to “business as usual” and not be as vigilant, but that’s when problems occur.

Food safety isn’t simply a restaurant issue, it’s a critical issue for the entire food service industry: restaurants, schools, colleges, contract services, convenience stores, hotels, manufacturing and production facilities, medical facilities, retirement homes, retail, etc. Bottom line – if you sell, serve, or make food in any capacity, you must be vigilant about food safety. Training and following proper protocols are essential to keep consumers safe at all of these venues.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), norovirus is the leading cause of illness and contaminated food outbreaks in the United States. Most of these outbreaks occur in the food service settings. (e.g., nursing homes, hospitals, restaurants, schools, daycare centers, military barracks, universities and cruise ships). Norovirus is a common virus that can spread widely very rapidly. Every year, the virus causes 19-21 million illnesses and between 570-800 deaths, according to the CDC.

In the past year, there were several norovirus outbreaks and many of them impacted learning institutions. In October 2015, hundreds of students and faculty in the Reno, Nevada, area were sickened after a norovirus outbreak spread to more than a dozen different schools. Then in December, dozens of students at Boston College contracted norovirus, according to the city’s health commission. Officials believe the Boston outbreak was linked to a Chipotle restaurant near campus. Charlotte-Mecklenburg school was closed in February of this year due to a norovirus outbreak. And, just recently, dozens of college students at Chapman University in California have been showing symptoms from an outbreak of what’s thought to be norovirus.

Outbreaks of norovirus infection are more likely to occur during winter months within institutions such as schools, colleges, residential facilities, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and child care settings. The virus is easily spread from person-to-person through direct contact, contact with contaminated surfaces, and ingestion of contaminated food. Norovirus is easily spread in close, confined quarters.

Typically, we think of norovirus as being an illness that involves vomiting and diarrhea, and in most cases this is true. However, in some situations, the ramifications are much more severe. A norovirus infection can become quite serious in children, the elderly and immune-compromised individuals. Sometimes severe dehydration, malnutrition, and even death can result from a norovirus infection.

To reduce the risk of spreading the illness, the CDC recommends that food workers do the following:

  • Avoid preparing food for others while you’re sick and for at least 48 hours after symptoms stop
  • Wash your hands carefully and often with soap and water (100°F)
  • Rinse fruits and vegetables before preparing or serving
  • Cook shellfish thoroughly
  • Clean and sanitize kitchen utensils, counters, and surfaces routinely
  • Wash table linens, napkins, and other laundry thoroughly

A well-trained management, staff, and crew is imperative in creating a food safety culture. These values must be established and modeled at the executive level. If the executives aren’t championing for food safety in the corporate arena, it’s a major problem for that company. Ongoing training and education is vitally important to prevent foodborne illnesses, and the terrible repercussions that occur after an outbreak. So is ensuring that all staff, in all food service professions, always follow proper food safety protocols.

In the food service industry training is critical, it’s never-ending, and it’s one of the most important things you do. With the proper education, guidance, and training, your company can prevent and avoid foodborne illness and keep your guests safe.