CDC traces 40% of foodborne-illness outbreaks to infected workers

The finding is likely to foster efforts to mandate paid sick leave.
Sick employees are the source of 40% of foodborne-illness outbreaks, the CDC found. / Photo: Shutterstock

About 40% of the foodborne-illness outbreaks reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) between 2017 and 2019 were caused by an infected restaurant or food-store employee, the federal watchdog agency reported Thursday.

The finding is likely to increase pressure for mandates obliging restaurants and other employers to provide paid sick leave. Proposals to require the benefit have been introduced in the U.S. Congress, with the support of 121 Democratic senators and representatives, and a number of statehouses.

Proponents of paid leave say the benefit would prompt more ill employees to stay home because they won’t lose a day’s pay.

Nearly 9 of 10 establishments that suffered an outbreak had policies in place to keep sick or infectious employees from working. The most prevalent safeguard was a requirement that workers notify their supervisor if they felt ill and needed to stay home.

However, the CDC noted that the voluntary safety nets often had gaping holes. For instance, only 62.4% of the workplaces had a written stipulation that ill employees needed to stay away from the job.

The agency found that fewer than 18% of the workplaces listed all five of the symptoms that warrant skipping work. The rest tended to omit at least one of the indicators: vomiting, diarrhea, a sore throat with fever, jaundice and a lesion with pus.

The CDC said it fielded 800 reports of outbreaks during the examined timeframe, which collectively involved 875 retail food-selling establishments.

The most common contaminant was norovirus, the virus that causes cold-like symptoms, followed by salmonella, a pathogen that brings on flu-like conditions. The two contaminants accounted for just under 70% of the reported outbreaks.

The CDC uses the term “outbreak” to designate a sudden and often widespread surge in the instances of a particular ailment or pathogen. It differs from “cluster,” or a grouping of cases in a very constrained area, and “epidemic,” which signifies an ailment that involves multiple countries or other jurisdictions.

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