Sick Workers Cause 40 Percent of Food Poisoning Outbreaks

Whether it was their aerosolized vomitus or their bare-handed food prep, sick workers caused 40 percent of food poisoning outbreaks at restaurants from 2017 to 2019, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.) Researchers found that norovirus was the most common source of outbreaks and cited the vomit mist and lack of gloves as examples of the most common mode of transmission.

A study of restaurant outbreaks from 2014 to 2016 had similar findings, researchers said. In that study, researchers found that norovirus was the source of 60 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks at restaurants, and contamination from sick workers accounted for more than half of them.

The study looked at 800 food poisoning outbreaks associated with 875 restaurants. About 91 percent of these outbreaks involved one establishment and 9 percent involved multiple establishments. Twenty-eight of them were multistate outbreaks.

How Can These Outbreaks Be Prevented?

Food Safety Policies

Restaurants are the most common setting for food poisoning outbreaks. Adopting comprehensive food safety policies could prevent these outbreaks, researchers said.

“Outbreak establishments with cleaning and glove use policies had smaller norovirus outbreaks than those without such policies.,” the study found. Having a written food safety policy also corresponded with smaller outbreaks.

Ill Worker Policies

Another key is having an Ill worker policy.

These policies require workers to tell managers when they are ill and restrict them from working when they are sick. To be effective, they must be written and include the five symptoms of illness itemized in the FDA Food Code: vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, sore throat with fever, and lesion with pus. Although vomiting and diarrhea are two of the most common food poisoning symptoms, one-third of the restaurants in this study did not specify them.

Paid Sick Leave

When asked why they worked when ill, food workers cited “loss of pay and perceived social pressure.” More than half of the restaurants linked to outbreaks in this study did not have paid sick leave.

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