Tag Archives: norovirus

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.
No Comments
Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

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.

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

Combating Norovirus Hazards in Retail Foodservice

By Dan Okenu, Ph.D.
No Comments
Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

Norovirus is the number one cause of foodborne disease outbreaks worldwide. It makes people sick causing nausea, stomach cramping, vomiting and diarrhea or “stomach flu” and leads to a lot of discomfort and even death, especially in vulnerable populations like children and the elderly. Elevated risk of infection is associated with certain foods that are served raw, like fruits and vegetables, contaminated ready-to-eat (RTE) foods, or improperly cooked Oysters from contaminated waters. According to the CDC, Norovirus is the leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated foods in the United States, especially in retail foodservice settings like restaurants.

Some of the potential sources of Norovirus outbreaks in retail foodservice are as follows:

  • Infected food handlers
  • Infected non-food workers and guests
  • Bare hands contact with RTE foods
  • Contamination of food deliveries at source
  • Improper cleaning and disposal of body fluids
  • Training gap on sanitizer and disinfectant use
  • Aerosolized vomitus around food and people
  • Contaminated food contact and non-food contact surfaces
  • Improper hand washing by food handlers
  • Cross contamination from restrooms
  • Cross contamination from high touch points in the back of the house

It is apparent from the statistics that Norovirus constitutes a major hazard to the retail foodservice industry. The good news, however, is that there are a lot of cost-effective strategies that can be implemented in a proactive manner to reduce its spread and impact on businesses, protect customers and the bottom line. Some of these preventive measures will be discussed here and in next week’s blog post.Norovirus_thumb

Proper Hand Washing by Foodservice Workers

Proper hand washing is the most cost-effective method for preventing cross-contaminations including Norovirus in a retail foodservice environment. Hand wash sinks should be appropriately located to encourage compliance by both foodservice workers and guests. For example; the food code requires handling dry clean dishes with clean hands during the dish washing process. Thus, it makes a lot sense to install a hand wash sink in close proximity to an automated dishwasher. This will enhance hand washing compliance by Team Members before handling and stacking dry clean dishes. Adequate soap and hand sanitizers should be provided at all hand washing stations including restrooms. Whereas the use of hand sanitizers is not a replacement for proper hand washing with soap, there is evidence that hand sanitizers are effective against Norovirus. Proper hand washing remains the preferred option however, since the use of soap can indeed get rid of other cross contaminating organic matter and dirt. Incentive programs may be used to encourage frequent and proper hand washing by foodservice workers. More resources may be found at handwashingforlife.com to help foodservice establishments update their hand washing culture.

While enforcing proper hand washing among foodservice employees is desirable, it is also advisable to encourage hand washing among guests. Norovirus can be transmitted by infected guests to the foodservice establishment especially in buffet style restaurants where guests come in very close proximity with RTE foods. Facility design that encourages hand washing by guests was elegantly captured by the Florida based PDQ restaurant chain that installed a hand wash sink in their main dining room with a strong brand statement that “quality and clean go hand in hand”. The strategic location of a hand wash sink encourages hand washing by guests, especially among children in the full view of their parents, and with less cross contaminating contact surfaces as found in the restrooms.

Restroom Cleaning and Sanitation

Color coded cleaning and sanitizing tools are recommended for restrooms to prevent cross contamination. Tools will be dedicated for use in restrooms only and stored in a dedicated storage or closet to avoid accidental use in other areas of the foodservice establishment. The restroom can be the most important part of the restaurant with opportunities to prevent infections. Guests may also use the cleanliness of the restroom as a measure of food safety commitment by the retail food establishment (see my previous blog on “Clean Matters”). Thus, extra efforts are required to maintain and keep restrooms in a clean and sanitary condition all the time. Use of disinfectant grade chemicals for disinfecting restrooms, body fluids clean-up and high touch point areas is recommended. The alternative of preparing high concentration sanitizers is laborious and prone to mistakes by foodservice workers. In addition, such high concentrated sanitizers like 1000 – 5000 ppm chlorine-based sanitizer can be a safety concern to employees when used without PPEs. Frequent cleaning, disinfecting and replenishing of hand soap and sanitizers in the restroom are effective measures against restroom infections and cross contaminations including Norovirus.

Stay tuned for more preventative measures to be discussed in next week’s blog post…