In the aftermath of a recent session of the Conference for Food Protection that was held in Chandler, AZ, Jorge Hernandez, vice president of food safety and risk management, National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, Chicago, told ID Access that the entire supply chain is very concerned about this issue.
On the one hand, Hernandez said, managers who see employees exhibiting symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea are responsible for keeping them from coming into contact with food preparation. Furthermore, he noted, employees should also understand that if they are sick, or afflicted with what he called a norovirus, they should voluntarily stay at home, despite the loss of a day's pay.
"It is very important that the foodservice industry understand that anybody who has either symptoms of vomiting or diarrhea should be kept away from food preparation areas. There is no question about it," Hernandez said. "We are finding that more of the new outbreaks of food-borne contamination are being caused by a norovirus, which is transmitted from people to people."
While norovirus, formerly called Norwalk virus, is not new, he explained, new technology is helping doctors to easily and quickly identify it.
Hernandez believes that awareness through education will preserve the integrity and safety of the food preparation process. "Let management know what the risks are. Let the employees know that they are placing the operation at risk, as well as their own health, the health of their coworkers and the customers and anyone they come in contact with. Make people understand the consequences."
The industry-wide effort should include foodservice distributors, he added, because their employees, drivers, warehouse personnel and even sales reps come into contact with many foodservice operators in the course of a day. They can also play a role by educating not only their staffs but their customers about food safety and personal hygiene.
"Distributors should also continue spreading the word that this is an important issue right now as we are dealing with norovirus," Hernandez said.
Maintaining a high level of personal hygiene, specifically washing hands before emerging from a rest room, continues to be the No. 1 action that a foodservice employee can do on a personal level to boost food safety, he said. However, he cautioned, this doesn't mean running your fingers under a faucet. "I'm talking about washing your hands with soap and water under warm running water for at least 20 seconds," Hernandez said.
Training, a key element of food safety compliance, is critical to ensuring that employees wash their hands along with making sure that the facility is well stocked with sinks, soap and towels, Hernandez said.
"It's not going to help you if you tell them to do something and then you don't provide them with the appropriate tools," Hernandez observed. "Companies that have the most success with getting their employees to wash their hands are those that make it part of their culture."
Hernandez advised that sinks should be conspicuously situated, especially at the entrance to the kitchen. All employees, including managers and owners, should wash their hands before entering the food preparation zone in order to establish and maintain a food safety culture, he said, adding, "Peer pressure and example have a huge impact on compliance."
The final top-of-mind topic discussed at the conference was food security as it pertains to food safety. Compliance requires a farm to table mentality, Hernandez said. "Everybody relies on the person before them in order to maintain secure food. No matter what you do in your sector, if the person in the sector before you is not secure in his or her practices you could have a serious trouble," he pointed out.