Study finds sick workers major factor in food-poisoning outbreaks

Sick workers are a significant factor in food-poisoning outbreaks, a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study finds.

A quarter of the cases examined by the CDC in the study featured an ill or infectious employee contaminating food.

The study looked at 800 reported cases of foodborne illness at 875 restaurants and food businesses from 2017 to 2019.

Of those, 555, or 69.4%, had a confirmed or suspected illness-causing agent. Norovirus was the most common, causing 47% of outbreaks. Salmonella caused 18.6%, while the variants of E. coli together contributed to 5% of outbreaks.

There were 500 outbreak cases where outside factors contributed to the beginning and spread of illness. Of those, 200 involved the contamination of food by ill or infectious workers.

Interviews with 725 separate managers linked to 679 of the outbreaks revealed that there are shortfalls in how food service businesses communicate and enforce guidelines around sick workers.

Federal officials urge workers to notify bosses if they have vomiting, jaundice, a sore throat with fever, diarrhea or lesions with pus. Only 23% of managers reported having notification policies posted listing all five of those symptoms, and only 17.8% of managers listed all five symptoms within policies outright restricting or excluding sick employees from working.

Among businesses with sick worker restrictions in place, only 62.4% of them had put those policies in writing.

In addition, only 16.1% of establishments had policies featuring all four components for dealing with sick workers: requiring that ill workers notify bosses, restricting or excluding sick employees from work, and specifying all five of the above symptoms that necessitate notification and exclusion.

The cases used in the study were provided by state health departments in: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin.

Local health departments from across the country, including Fairfax County, Virginia, also participated.

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