Don’t let your facility be the next foodborne illness headline on the evening news

By Francine L. Shaw, president, Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc.

No one in the foodservice industry ever wants to discuss foodborne illnesses. Most have an attitude of “It won’t happen to me.” Yet foodborne illnesses do happen, causing many negative repercussions. Tropical Smoothie Café is in the midst of a Hepatitis A outbreak, with over 100 people ill in seven states, and nearly 40 people hospitalized. Chipotle made over 500 people sick last year with multiple foodborne illnesses, including outbreaks of Norovirus, Salmonella and E.coli. And both of these companies are paying the price, with plunging sales, tumbling stock prices and loss of consumer confidence.

Whether you’re a chef responsible for creating products that are served in America’s top franchises, working in a resort that has multiple restaurant kitchens or a chef with your own restaurant, you’re responsible for always practicing proper food safety protocols–and not sickening the people you feed. That means getting back to the basics.  Think back to your first year of culinary school and remember all that you were taught about the importance of food safety.

As foodborne illnesses continue to occur in restaurants, hotels, schools, cruise ships and other venues, Norovirus remains the top foodborne illness in the U.S. Every year, 19 to 21 million cases of norovirus occur in the U.S., causing more than 50,000 hospitalizations and over 500 deaths per year, mostly among young children and the elderly. Outbreaks of norovirus are more common in the cooler winter months and can reach epidemic proportions quickly because the disease is highly contagious.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the majority of norovirus outbreaks occur in foodservice settings, and infected workers cause 70 percent of those outbreaks.  Infected food workers typically spread the illness, often by touching ready-to-eat foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables, with bare hands before serving them.

Norovirus is most contagious when a person is showing symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea) and the first three days after recovery. Yet, several recent studies indicate that people in the foodservice/hospitality industry go to work even when they’re sick.

In fact, as a food service expert, I see a multitude of sins on a daily basis when I’m conducting food service inspections. One of the top violations is a lack of hand washing. I once witnessed a chef wearing multiple layers of gloves. He told me this kept him from washing his hands so frequently (the sink was “just too far away”). Many times, facilities don’t have hot water, which is a huge problem. You cannot wash your hands effectively without hot water!

Good old-fashioned hand washing will reduce the risk of a norovirus outbreak. Viruses usually are smaller than bacteria, which makes them more difficult to remove. This places even more importance on hand-washing techniques, like making certain the appropriate hand soap is available, applying friction during the washing and rinsing process to remove viruses and bacteria, and of course drying hands properly (with either a single-use paper towel or an air dryer). The CDC and FDA recommend hand washing with soap and water, and not using hand sanitizer, which may be less effective in removing norovirus germs.

While norovirus is often spread through person-to-person or person-to-surface contact, it can also occur from foods, such as oysters, fruits and vegetables, when contaminated at the source. It’s important to note that any food served raw or handled after being cooked can become contaminated with norovirus.

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 norovirus and other foodborne illnesses, the experts at Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc. recommend:

  • 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 hot 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.
  • Train your staff about food safety protocols and ensure they follow the strictest procedures whenever they’re preparing, storing and serving food.
  • Following proper procedures when cleaning up vomit and diarrhea is essential to preventing the spread of norovirus. To keep the virus from spreading you MUST use bleach to clean up bodily fluids.

The foodservice/hospitality industry is an exhilarating industry. Many of us love the busy shifts and intense challenges that go along with our jobs and feel great when a hectic Saturday night seating goes off without a hitch.  Just remember that as your restaurant, hotel or other commercial kitchen becomes busy, that’s when safety shortcuts tend to occur.  Make sure your entire team follows proper food safety protocols all the time–even during the busy dinner rush. Ensure that people are washing their hands, avoiding cross-contamination and sanitizing all equipment, surfaces and linens.  You want people talking about your sensational food and extraordinary service–not your recent foodborne illness incident.

francine-l-shaw-headshotFrancine L. Shaw is president of Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc., which offers a robust roster of services, including food safety training, food safety inspections, Norovirus policies for employees, Norovirus clean-up procedures, responsible alcohol service training and more. The Food Safety Training Solutions team has more than 100 combined years of industry experience in restaurants, casinos and convenience stores. The company has helped numerous clients prevent foodborne illnesses. Additionally, they work with restaurants of all sizes, schools, medical facilities, convenience stores, hotels and casinos.  Francine has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the Dr. Oz Show, the Huffington Post and Food Management.