Norovirus Prevention Can Be Measured

By Brian Harris

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Google “norovirus” and what appears is basically all you need to know—“winter vomiting bug.” But what should also appear is a “reoccurring nightmare for the restaurant industry.”

Norovirus is the leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated food in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, about 50% of all outbreaks of food-related illness are caused by norovirus. Some foods are more commonly associated with outbreaks, including leafy greens, fresh fruits, and shellfish such as oysters. However, any food that is raw or handled after being cooked can become contaminated.

Health care facilities accounted for nearly 63% of norovirus outbreaks from 2009 through 2012, according to the CDC. The restaurant industry was the only other double-digit source at 22%. Infected food workers are frequently the source of outbreaks, meaning they touched food with their bare hands.

The Real Cost of Norovirus

While the CDC findings are important to understanding the scope of norovirus, it’s equally as important to drive home the dollar and cents of an outbreak. A recent norovirus outbreak at a Chipotle in Massachusetts serves as an example of how quickly things can spiral out of control for a brand.

Four of the employees at a Boston-area Chipotle came down with norovirus after being infected during an outbreak at their high school. One of the employee’s parents decided to alert the media as well as the local health department, which temporarily shut down the store. This incident was on the heels of Chipotle’s brush with a multiple-state E.coli outbreak. What followed was a mass exodus of investors and a $750 million loss in the company’s market cap in two days. Notably, the employees had not come to work sick and there were no reports of ill customers.

Given this perfect storm of foodborne illness, you might just think Chipotle has exceptionally bad luck. But you would have to say the same for Buffalo Wild Wings, which faced its own norovirus outbreak in Kansas right before Super Bowl Sunday. Once state officials confirmed the outbreak, the company’s stock fell 13% in one day to a 15-month low.

Don’t Leave Norovirus Prevention Up to ‘Luck’

Restaurant and foodservice brands must make every effort to prevent norovirus outbreaks. It start with training employees and ends with accountability; both can be documented.

Training

Every employee must receive norovirus training during their on-boarding. Document when each employee has completed training, and have them sign off that they understand their responsibility to notify management if they contract norovirus or experience symptoms.

Accountability

As part of a pre-shift checklist, each restaurant manager should ask employees if they have experienced any norovirus symptoms in the last two days.

Note: In the form, be sure to clearly list what those symptoms are, including diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain. Other symptoms include fever, headache, and body aches.

Reacting to ‘Yes’

Let’s consider when your employee genuinely is sick and tells you. Management should be notified immediately. The employee should be sent home and the reason should be indicated in the form. If the employee was sent home mid-shift, the areas where the employee worked should be cleaned thoroughly.

Note: Set the guidelines for what constitutes a thorough cleaning. For instance, if the person was in charge of handling fresh vegetables, discard those vegetables and wash utensils/equipment they handled. Document when the food was discarded.

More Than an ‘Honors System’

To a certain extent, the success of accountability procedures comes down to the honors system.

  • Does every employee stay home when they are sick? No.
  • Do other employees want to “tattle” that a colleague is sick? Probably not.

Still, that doesn’t mean employees can’t be incentivized.  There should be a safeguard of anonymity, and perhaps even an incentive, if an employee alerts management that a colleague is ill with norovirus symptoms and handling food.

Depending on the size of the network, regional managers could verify the norovirus checklists of individual stores during a routine audit. Through a platform like Zenput, senior management could receive an alert about any store that’s not in line with training and accountability.

When it comes to compliance, food safety is too important not to follow up for compliance. In the event of an outbreak and subsequent investigation, your documentation and ability to take corrective action will make all the difference in moving past the incident.

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