40% Food Poisoning Outbreaks Linked to Ill Restaurant Workers

Sick workers are one of the key contributors to food borne illness outbreaks in restaurants, recent CDC data shows. The findings underline the need for paid sick leave and more comprehensive food safety policies.

The study published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report analyzed 800 food borne illness outbreaks linked to 875 retail food establishments that occurred during 2017 to 2019.

Norovirus was identified as the most common pathogen, accounting for 47.0% of the outbreaks. Also known as "stomach flu" or "stomach bug," this highly contagious virus causes vomiting and diarrhea. Norovirus can be contracted by eating food that an infected person touched.

Salmonella bacteria, responsible for 18.6% of the outbreaks, causes symptoms like diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. Found in raw or undercooked animal products, the bacteria can spread if an infected person does not properly wash their hands while cooking.

Contributing factors were identified in 62.5% of outbreaks. Of those, nearly half (40%) had at least one reported factor associated with food contamination by an ill or infectious food worker.

Most (91.7%) of the 725 managers interviewed said that their restaurants had a policy requiring food workers to notify their managers when they were ill. However, only 23.0% reported their policy listing all five illness symptoms workers needed to notify managers about. Although the majority (85.5%) of managers said their establishments had a policy restricting or excluding ill workers from working, fewer than half (43.6%) provided paid sick leave.

According to a 2021 survey, food workers with poisoning symptoms continue to work ill if there are no policies that require them to report illness and there is no paid sick leave, among other reasons. Even if the restaurant offers sick leave pay, it is unlikely to compensate for income that comes from tips.

The CDC says that adopting comprehensive food safety policies could help prevent foodborne illness outbreaks. Such policies could include increased frequency of equipment cleaning, proper date marking, and the use of gloves. Moreover, the restaurants with written policies had smaller outbreaks than those with only verbally communicated policies.

The study has several limitations. Because only voluntary reported outbreaks were analyzed, they might not be representative of all United States outbreaks. In addition, the managers might have overreported socially desirable conditions in the interviews. The research was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, which may have led to permanent changes in some practices.

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