restaurant workers spread norovirus
June 4, 2014

Food Service Workers Spread Norovirus

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that some food service workers could be to blame for the spread of the norovirus – an intestinal bug that can make a person violently ill and often strikes quickly.

According to the new CDC report, one-in-five food service workers have gone to their job while sick with diarrhea and vomiting, the two primary symptoms of the disease. People who prepare food are to blame for 70 percent of norovirus outbreaks through their handling of food such as sandwiches or raw fruit, the CDC said.

“Norovirus outbreaks from contaminated food in restaurants are far too common,” said CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden in a recent statement. “All who prepare food, especially the food service industry can do more to create a work environment that promotes food safety and ensures that workers adhere to food safety laws and regulations that are already in place.”

The Vital Signs report noted that about 20 million people get sick from the norovirus each year, mostly from either contaminated food or coming in contact with those who are sick. The virus was found to be the cause behind 1.9 million doctor visits; 400,000 trips to the emergency room; as many as 71,000 hospitalizations and up to 800 deaths. Treating the disease costs the US over $770 million annually.

The virus is known to be very contagious with 18 viral particles capable of infecting over 1,000 people, the CDC said. It can also strike so quickly, afflicted individuals cannot make it to the bathroom in time. Those who do get sick in public are risking exposing others to the virus.

"Norovirus is one tough bug," Frieden noted.

Lee-Ann Jaykus, a professor of food science at North Carolina State University, told USA Today that the virus is very difficult to kill – with alcohol-based sanitizers not being very effective. She suggested frequent hand washing as a way to stop the spread of the virus. The CDC said even cooking at high temperatures may not kill the virus.

The federal agency recommended that restaurants offer paid sick time to incentivize those who are sick to stay home. Workers who stay home should not return to work until at least 48 hours after symptoms stop, the CDC said.

The CDC also recommended restaurants have workers who are on-call and enforce proper food-handling procedures. Jaykus said some restaurants are better than others at practicing these measures.

“The large retailers are well-aware (of norovirus) and working very hard," she said. "Smaller restaurants have, of course, fewer resources."

While scientists have yet to develop a vaccine for the norovirus, a report published in February did find one potential weapon – oregano. According to the report, a chemical in oregano called carvacrol effectively breaks down the tough, protective exterior of the norovirus.

“Carvacrol could potentially be used as a food sanitizer and possibly as a surface sanitizer, particularly in conjunction with other antimicrobials,” said study author Kelly Bright. “We have some work to do to assess its potential but carvacrol has a unique way of attacking the virus, which makes it an interesting prospect.”