Norovirus has had a reputation as a virus that often breaks out on cruise ships, but the nasty truth of the bug was revealed in a recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the report, the virus is usually spread in restaurants through infected food service workers who then contaminate the food.
Norovirus is one of several illnesses spread by the fecal-oral route in which pathogens in fecal matter are transmitted to the oral cavity, especially by contaminated hands that have come in contact with food served to others, thus causing sickness. It is also spread by coming into contact with someone who has the virus, a contaminated surface, or contaminated water.
Norovirus is extremely contagious and causes vomiting, diarrhea, fever, stomach pain, nausea, and possibly other gastrointestinal issues. Between 19 and 21 million ailments a year can be attributed to the virus, in addition to over 50,000 hospitalizations and 570 to 800 deaths. According to the report, norovirus is the number one cause of foodborne illness outbreaks in the United States. The numerous food service employees who come to work sick and fail to properly wash their hands or use gloves, contribute largely to the problem.
All norovirus outbreaks are submitted to the National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS). CDC officials studied all the norovirus outbreaks that were reported between 2009 and 2012. This was a total of 1008 outbreaks. In 520 of these outbreaks food contamination was involved, with 70 percent due to food service workers. In more than half of these cases, workers touched ready-to-eat foods with their bare hands. Fruits, leafy green vegetables, and mollusks are the most likely food culprits in an outbreak of norovirus. The CDC discovered that one in five food poisoning ailments are linked to leafy greens, making this the number one source.
The recent report from the CDC revealed the truth that the nasty norovirus in cruise ship-related outbreaks accounts for only one percent. Eighty percent of non-food norovirus outbreaks happen in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. The CDC recommends proper hand-washing techniques for food service employees, and using disposable gloves and utensils while handling food to avoid contacting it with bare hands. Food safety training and certification for all food service workers is also recommended. Policies requiring workers to stay home for a minimum of 48 hours after being sick with vomiting and diarrhea is suggested as well. Health officials also suggest paid sick leave for food service workers. CDC Director Tom Frieden explained that part of restaurant managers’ jobs is to ensure that their workers are following rules pertaining to food handling, and that proper sick leave policies are in place.
In the past few years, the lawmakers in several states have tried to address this public health issue. Oregon, Louisiana, Montana, Minnesota, and Nebraska have health codes that discourage bare-hand contact with food. In California it is a little more serious. A bill was signed last year by Governor Jerry Brown that restricts bartenders and chefs from contacting food going right to the drinking glass or plate with their bare hands. They must use gloves or kitchen utensils. Forty-one other states also have rules that ban workers from contacting ready-to-eat foods with their bare hands.
The nasty truth the CDC has revealed about the norovirus in their recent report may serve as a reminder of the extreme importance of proper food handling training and safety techniques. The report also brings to the forefront the importance of paid sick leave for food service workers.
By Twanna Harps