Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B
Retail Food Safety Forum

Combating Norovirus Hazards in Retail Food Service – Part 2

By Dan Okenu, Ph.D.
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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

Until a viable vaccine or an effective drug becomes available against Norovirus, rigorous implementation of food safety procedures, behavioral changes and continuous training of both foodservice workers and customers will remain the industry’s best practices at prevention and control.

Last week, in this blog we discussed that Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness worldwide, some potential sources of outbreak, and the importance of proper handwashing and cleaning and disposal of body fluids. In this second part of the blog, we will cover developing an employee health policy, building a comprehensive food safety program, and training of employees.

Develop an employee health policy

It is important to develop an employee health policy with detailed guidelines for sick employees. Sick foodservice workers are required to stay off work until fully recovered and cleared by their Doctor. When an employee becomes sick at work, such an employee must report to the immediate supervisor, and be allowed to leave work to attend to the ill-health. Reportable diseases must be reported upon diagnosis to enable the Local Health Department and affected foodservice establishment take necessary actions to protect the public health. There should be a crisis management plan in case the media gets involved in any such reportable infectious disease situations. To enable ill-health reporting compliance by employees, foodservice establishments are encouraged to adopt an employee health policy that is not punitive in nature.

Managers and supervisors should also be trained to recognize abnormal behaviors and tell-tale signs of ill-health in employees who may choose not to report due to the potential of losing hourly wages. Employee health policy training should be mandatory – to report injuries, ill-health and to follow the exclusion policy from food prep until fully certified and cleared to return to work by the Doctor.

For more resources on employee health policy, please see FDA’s Employee Health and Personal Hygiene Handbook for practices and behaviors of food service workers that can help reduce the spread of infectious diseases in retail food operations.

Self-auditing of food safety procedures

Active managerial control will enable verification of the food safety program for potential corrective actions that may be required including retraining of staff. A self-auditing system will ensure that risk mitigation is applied at every stage of foodservice operations with HACCP plans implemented and verified. In addition, a third party auditing will identify the weak links in the system and help prepare the establishment for Local Health inspections. Proper cleaning and sanitation of contact surfaces, observing the temperature rule – keeping cold food cold and hot food hot or routine cleaning and sanitizing of high touch points surfaces are examples of food safety procedures that managers can evaluate and verify on daily basis to continue serving safe quality food to customers. Effective implementation of these food safety standard will have a direct correlation with reduction in cross-contamination including Norovirus prevention.

Comprehensive supplier food safety program

Food can get contaminated at any point during the farm to fork journey. A robust supplier food safety program will ensure better control of potential risk transfer in retail food operations. A system that ensures that approved certified suppliers are continuously verified will capture any potential system failure and implement corrective action both at the supplier and retail levels. The use of approved suppliers is an important risk mitigation step that should be mandatory and verified to ensure that all deliveries are of the highest food safety and quality standard. Since risk burden may be accentuated at retail foodservice due to multiple operational processes in the kitchen, it is important to assess the risk burden at the supplier level, to enable effective mitigation. Thus, a dedicated supplier food safety monitoring, evaluation and verification is absolutely required at retail foodservice to assist in eliminating any food safety weak link in the supply chain. The safe quality food outcome will remain complementary and supportive of the supply chain’s mission of “never run out”.

Training of employees on standard operating procedures

Proper and continuous training of employees is fundamental to a successful food safety program in retail food operations. We may have the best food safety program in place but if these important SOPs are not properly implemented at every operational step as a result of training gap, it may in fact introduce a greater risk into the system. Since most hourly foodservice workers are young adults with a higher than normal turn-over rate, effective communication and continuous training will help keep a good handle on the food safety know-how of each batch of employees. Consequently, it is absolutely necessary to have a certified food safety manager as the person-in-charge to oversee foodservice operations. Training the trainers, managers and training directors will assist in meeting the training needs of all employees including hourly and temporary workers and for compliance with food code requirements.

Online food safety courses and training is the preferred method of instruction for most large retail foodservice chains. These training materials can be accessed anywhere in handheld devices and can be updated in real time. Online training however should not be a replacement for personalized one-on-one onsite training on the job. Hand washing compliance, no bare hands contact with RTE foods, clean-up of body fluids, separating high risk raw chicken, beef and sea foods from RTE foods using a color coded system, and observing critical control points in the food prep process are some of the SOPs that require continuous training and verification to ensure compliance.

In conclusion, Norovirus is still a major infectious pathogen associated with foodservice operations in spite of several regulatory control and technological advances to curtail its occurrence and prevalence. Until a viable vaccine or an effective drug becomes available against Norovirus, rigorous implementation of food safety procedures, behavioral changes and continuous training of both foodservice workers and customers will remain the industry’s best practices at prevention and control. Overall, it makes a lot of business sense to do all that it takes to protect your customers against the threat of Norovirus infection, and by so doing, equally protect your business brand and the entire public health.

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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

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