Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illnesses and it spreads rapidly. Anyone can get infected with Norovirus and it’s possible to get it more than once. The average person will get Norovirus approximately five times during their lifetime. Peak season for Norovirus is during cooler months: November to April.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that each year, Norovirus causes:
- 19 – 21 million illnesses
- 56,000 – 71,000 hospitalizations
- 570 – 800 deaths
When Norovirus enters food service establishments, the results can be serious and widespread. In December 2015, a Boston-area Chipotle had a Norovirus outbreak that sickened over a hundred customers. Then, in March, Chipotle shuttered a different Massachusetts restaurant amid Norovirus concerns.
When Chipotle learned that four employees at this location were ill, they decided to close the store for a full sanitation. At the time, it wasn’t known for certain if the employees had Norovirus, so this closure and full sanitation was done as a precaution. This closure cost them a day’s sales, the cost of the sanitation, and more negative press (that they didn’t deserve). Erring on the side of caution was wise, as at least one employee was ultimately confirmed to have the virus. As a result of Chipotle’s actions, no customers were infected. They prevented an outbreak.
Chipotle has received considerable bad press since for months, as the quick service chain suffered one foodborne illness outbreak after another, including Salmonella, E. coli, and Norovirus. These events hit multiple locations, sickened hundreds, caused Chipotle’s stocks to plummet, sparked lawsuits, and even resulted in a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice.
When they suspected Norovirus in early March, they did exactly what they should’ve done – closed and sanitized this restaurant. Unfortunately, their actions to prevent yet another foodborne illness outbreak were not reported in the most positive light.
Norovirus is extremely common. When employees come to work with diarrhea and vomiting, most facilities don’t close for sanitation. In fact, these employees are often permitted to work with these very contagious symptoms that can infect others – and even cause a foodborne illness outbreak.
Norovirus can easily contaminate food because it’s very tiny and infective. It only takes a very small amount of virus particles (as few as 18) to make someone sick. Food can get contaminated with Norovirus when:
- Infected people who have feces or vomit on their hands touch the food.
- Food is placed on counters or surfaces that have infectious feces or vomit on them.
- Tiny drops of vomit from an infected person spray through the air and land on the food.
Foods can also be contaminated at their source:
- Oysters that are harvested from contaminated water
- Fruit and vegetables that are contaminated during the growing process
At Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc., we offer food service professionals these tips to avoid Norovirus-related issues:
- Do not work or allow your employees to work when ill.
- Avoid preparing food for others while you’re sick and for at least 48 hours after symptoms
stop. Get a note from your physician before returning to work.
- Wash your hands carefully and often with soap and water (at least 100°F). The hand
washing process should take at least 20 seconds.
- Rinse fruits and vegetables carefully.
- Cook shellfish thoroughly.
- Clean and sanitize kitchen utensils, counters, and surfaces routinely.
- Wash table linens, napkins, and other laundry thoroughly and often.
- Have (and implement) a policy for “Clean-up and Disinfection of Norovirus” as stated in the 2013 Food Code.
Let’s give credit where credit is due. Kudos to Chipotle for doing the right thing, regardless of what it cost the business. On the day they closed one location to prevent yet another a foodborne illness outbreak, their stocks dropped again, and the media headlines were negative. Chipotle is going to continue to be under the microscope for a long time. They’ve made many mistakes over the past months, but they appear to be making positive changes in their foodborne illness protocols, and that should be applauded.