It’s been referred to as the “perfect human pathogen.” With over 200,000 deaths per year worldwide, the Norovirus is the full trifecta of terrible: highly contagious, constantly evolving, and less virulent than many of its cohorts in the viral world. Why is “less virulent” a negative? Because the virus allows most of its infected hosts to recover over time and treatment, leaving a large number of bodies to get reinfected. The virus can then continue to spread and replicate more thoroughly.
It’s tricky, this Norovirus.
And it’s a particularly troubling thing for restaurant operators, because the Norovirus is airborne, and easily spread through unwashed hands and contaminated food. In fact, 64 percent of contaminated food in the United States can be traced back in one way or another to the food service industry, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
This leaves restaurants and catering services in quite a bind. Because even if the origin of infection is offsite or the virus is carried in by a customer, the restaurant is likely the one to take the public’s heat.
The average amount of time between exposure and the development of gastric symptoms is between 12 and 48 hours — meaning, a customer or staff member can bring Norovirus into your establishment without even knowing it. Recovery time, once symptoms of gastroenteritis set in, can take up to three days — and the virus can remain behind for up to two days after that. Added up, this means a potential exposure period of an entire week that your food preparers or diners can be spreading the virus.
That is all the more reason to be constantly on guard against infection. And as the restaurant industry adopts more and more trends related to freshness, raw food, and nose-to-tail ingredients, the risk of contamination (and cross-contamination) grows in foods that never reach 140º F or above in preparation.
Having established procedures in the event of an outbreak is important, but it’s just as critical to always be preventing Norovirus from taking hold in the first place. And the first way to do that is through proper cleaning and sanitation techniques.
Clean and sanitize thoroughly.
Although single-use gloves are required by many states in the handling of any made-fresh or uncooked food, there is no substitute for thorough and frequent handwashing in Norovirus prevention.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises that, for food service and hospitality professionals, hands be washed:
- BEFORE handling food
- BEFORE putting on gloves to handle food
- AFTER eating or drinking
- AFTER smoking or vaping
- AFTER coughing or sneezing
- AFTER using a tissue or touching your body
- AFTER preparing raw animal products
- AFTER handling dirty equipment
And especially after an employee uses the restroom. Given the nature of transmission for the Norovirus, restrooms — both public and staff-only — can be ground zero for infection. Take special care to maintain your restrooms and sanitize frequently and thoroughly.
Thorough handwashing consists of using warm or cold water, a minimum of 20 seconds of scrubbing with soap, and a clean rinse and dry. Need a cue to time 20 seconds right? Sing “Happy Birthday” to yourself twice.
Many proponents recommend hand sanitizer if handwashing is not viable, but in regard to food preparation, that’s not acceptable. Hand sanitizer, no matter its alcohol content, is not a substitute to hand-washing and can ultimately be counterproductive. Overuse of hand sanitizer can lead to cracked, dry skin, leaving employees with more sites of possible infection exposed — and if severe enough, more workman’s compensation claims for your business.
Beyond personal hygiene for your staff, it’s also more critical than ever to maintain thorough and routine sanitation of slicing equipment, utensils, and both preparation and customer surfaces. A combination of high temperature (over 140º F) sanitation with anti-microbial cleaning products is your restaurant’s best bet for killing any lingering Norovirus before it can reach food. And don’t forget your linens, either. Customers that carry Norovirus can inadvertently pass it on in touching porous surfaces if their own handwashing is subpar.
If you think food has been contaminated or handled by someone exposed to Norovirus, throw it out immediately. Do not risk an infection. The cost of replacing the food is far less than the cost behind clearing up an outbreak — or the longterm cost to your reputation.
While it is critical to have a documented process for maintaining a clean and sanitized kitchen and dining room for Norovirus prevention, experience has proven that written manuals and posters aimed at staff education are not truly helpful. They are mandatory in most jurisdictions — so make sure you comply — but be aware they can easily become part of the background noise of their daily work routine.
In order to sufficiently drill in the need for virus prevention, actual verbal training needs to take place, and managers need to watch for and reinforce proper food safety techniques every day.
Make sick time mandatory.
One of the first things a health crisis consultant will do in the case of a Norovirus outbreak is conduct an employee health screening. With more than half of food workers in America reporting that they go to work sick because they feel they have to, it’s critical for you as an employer to address their concern, whether it’s financial or about letting co-workers down.
Perhaps the second biggest factor to preventing the spread of Norovirus in your establishment is mandatory reporting for illness paired with paid time off (PTO). Vomiting or have diarrhea? Go home. Stay home. No debate allowed. Make any other conditions clear in your employee handbook by establishing a section on food handlers illness guidelines.
In fact, many local and state health departments require that food workers and preparers with norovirus illness not work until at least 48 hours after symptoms stop. But if an employee can’t feel secure enough in their job to make that call — or risks financial ruin over missing pay — the likelihood of accurate self-reporting drops considerably. Benefits like PTO make that reporting much more likely and could mean a significant cost savings for you in avoiding large scale panic and recuperation of business were Norovirus to take hold in your restaurant.
Manage your public and private response.
“It’s not where it came from. It’s how you responded.”
While this is a true statement, it’s understandable to want to locate the source of the infection, particularly in order to prevent it from spreading. Accurate self-reporting from employees will only cover so much ground, however. The reality is, customers — particularly in an environment with open food displays — can just as easily bring in Norovirus. And that doesn’t change a thing about your response.
In order to quickly address the issue and get your staff and environment back on the right track, get in touch immediately with a professional who specializes in Norovirus elimination. They will likely have you follow these steps in order, as necessary:
- Conduct enhanced employee health and hygiene surveillance
- Complete a full-scale environmental disinfection
- Eliminate customer self-service
- Re-train your staff on prevention techniques onsite
- (In extreme cases) cancel events or temporarily close your doors
Believe it or not, your state’s public health department is huge asset. They really understand how to control a Norovirus infection and eradicate it — fast. As scary as it may seem, calling them for assistance is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing.
And like any other public relations crisis, a Norovirus outbreak requires a calm, conciliatory nature in addressing the issue to press, with a focus on the solution you’ve devised. Finger-pointing, or any other type of emotional outburst, in the face of the enormous pressure of an outbreak could do more to damage your reputation than the Norovirus itself.
Want to stay ahead of the game on sanitation and cleaning your back of house? Check out these tips for your commercial kitchen: