Article contributed by Francine Shaw, President of Savvy Food Safety, Inc.
What if there was an illness where the best case scenario was projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea? And, in some situations (e.g., with children, the elderly and individuals with compromised immune systems), these symptoms could become much more severe, causing severe dehydration, malnutrition, and even death.
Well, this illness exists – it’s norovirus – and it’s the leading cause of illness and contaminated food outbreaks in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Norovirus is a common, highly contagious virus that can spread widely and rapidly. Every year, norovirus causes 19-21 million illnesses and hundreds of deaths, according to the CDC. Most of these outbreaks occur in food service settings – restaurants, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, day care centers, military barracks, universities and cruise ships. Norovirus even took down athletes and guests at the Olympic Village at the 2018 winter games.
Preventing norovirus is a critical issue for the entire food service industry. Any company that makes, serves, or sells food in any capacity must be vigilant about this issue. It has been determined that the majority of outbreaks (64%) are attributed to restaurants. Of those outbreaks, 70% are caused by infected workers.
A recent MIT study showed that projectile vomiting can contaminate close to 84 square feet, and norovirus particles can also be suspended in air. Per this report, norovirus germs are spread quickly, easily and can be projected to surfaces and people all the way across a room. So even if your kitchen utensils, counters, and surfaces appear to be clean, it’s very possible that viruses and germs may be lingering on them.
In fact, norovirus can live outside the body for several days, so it’s imperative to clean, sanitize, and disinfect facilities thoroughly and often – especially during/after a norovirus incident or outbreak.
Food safety facilities should keep the following in mind:
• Implement and train team members on Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for preventing and reporting illness. This includes notifying the person in charge (PIC) about any norovirus symptoms in staff members or guests. It also includes proper disposal of bodily fluids/vomit, sanitation of all surfaces, washing and sanitizing all linens, towels and rags, etc.
• Avoid preparing food for others while you’re sick and for at least 48 hours after symptoms stop.
• Don’t allow employees to work if they’re exhibiting symptoms of norovirus (vomiting, diarrhea). They must be symptom-free for a minimum of 48 hours before returning to work.
• Ensure all employees wash their hands carefully and often with soap and hot water, dry with a paper towel and wash again when returning to their work station. Employees must be vigilant about washing their hands after using (or cleaning) the restrooms, after cleaning up bodily fluids (like vomit or feces), and after touching surfaces (including doorknobs) that have been touched by others.
• Use proper equipment to clean up bodily fluids that could spread norovirus. For instance, PURELL™ Body Fluid Spill kits are instrumental in containing and disposing of body fluids (vomit, diarrhea) that could spread norovirus.
• Clean and sanitize kitchen utensils, counters, and surfaces routinely. Don’t forget about cleaning your appliances either (ovens, refrigerators, and ice machines).
• Wash table linens, napkins, dish rags, and other laundry thoroughly.
• Be mindful of even the smallest areas. Clean and sanitize even the smallest spaces and hidden places, such as the gaps between counters and walls, in tile grout, etc. Ensure that every part of your facility – no matter how small – is cleaned and sanitized regularly to prevent germs from lingering.
• Prohibit staff members from using their cell phones in the kitchen/food prep areas. Many employees take their cell phones into the bathroom and hold them while using the facilities and/or put them down on the dirty bathroom floor. By doing so, their phones can easily get contaminated with traces of feces or vomit, which can be spread to hands, foods, and surfaces. Make sure cell phones aren’t used around food to help prevent potential norovirus germs from being spread.
• Train your staff about food safety protocols and ensure they follow the strictest procedures whenever they’re preparing, storing and serving food.
Norovirus is hideous. It causes violent and miserable gastrointestinal symptoms, and can cause more serious illnesses and even death in young children, the elderly and compromised individuals. And norovirus is extremely contagious, often spreading quickly through a facility and taking down everyone that came in contact with the germs. You absolutely don’t want this sickness, which could spread like wildfire throughout your facility. Educate your staff on how to prevent, report and contain norovirus to keep your guests, staff and business safer and healthier.
Francine L. Shaw is President of Savvy Food Safety, Inc. which offers a robust roster of services, including consulting, food safety education, food safety inspections, crisis management training, writing norovirus policies for employees, writing norovirus clean-up procedures, curriculum development, responsible alcohol service training, and more. The Savvy Food Safety team has more than 100 combined years of industry experience in restaurants, casinos, and convenience stores and has helped numerous clients prevent foodborne illnesses. Francine is a well-respected international speaker,and has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the Dr. Oz Show, the Huffington Post, iHeartRadio, Food Safety News, Food Management Magazine and Food Service Consultants Society International.