By Francine L. Shaw
In early May, a Tampa Bay, FL news station reported that more than 20 local restaurants were being investigated for Hep A incidents and outbreaks. Around the same time, restaurant employees in Sarasota, FL, Caribou, ME and Rockport, MA were found to have the Hep A virus, and local health workers were concerned that they passed the contagious virus on to guests and their coworkers.
Hep A has become a huge threat in restaurants nationwide, and the number of infected restaurant employees seems to be on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 150,000 people in the U.S. are infected each year.
Hep A, which is spread primarily through virus-contaminated feces, can cause numerous symptoms, from fever and lethargy to inflammation and loss of liver function. In severe cases, it can cause death. It can take a month to show symptoms, so infected food service workers may not realize they have the virus, but could be passing it along to others through contact with food, water and surfaces. There’s no treatment for Hep A. Antibiotics won’t work since Hep A is a virus, not a bacterial infection. Infected people can experience symptoms for several months (or longer) before the virus goes away on its own.
Because the virus is spread through feces, it’s critical for infected people to wash their hands properly and thorougly after using the bathroom. (It’s also critical for ALL PEOPLE to wash their hands whenever they visit the restroom!) If someone with Hep A uses the restroom and doesn’t wash their hands properly, they could contaminate everything they touch – including food, surfaces, etc. Since the Hep A virus spreads so easily (and quickly) through food and water, it’s a huge threat for restaurants.
Restaurants must take every precaution to prevent Hep A. Tips to do so include:
- Train your staff. Just as you train employees to prevent foodborne illness, educate them about Hep A prevention. Explain what Hep A is, how it’s spread, and how to reduce the risk. Make Hep A prevention part of your food safety protocols.
- Ensure workers are vaccinated. All restaurant workers should be vaccinated to combat the spread of Hepatitis A. The recent Hep A cases at restaurants show what a huge threat unvaccinated workers can be. Not only did they cause serious health threats, potentially impacting many guests and coworkers, but Hep A outbreaks can also irreparably damage a restaurant’s reputation, just like any foodborne illness outbreak could do. Infected workers can pass the virus to others, as well as contaminate foods, beverages and surfaces they handle, even before they develop symptoms. Insist that all restaurant employees be vaccinated for Hep A to prevent an outbreak.
- Wash your hands! Handwashing is the single most important thing your employees can do to keep themselves (and others) safe from Hep A. Wash hands with soap and warm water, thoroughly and often. Since Hep A spreads from the feces of infected people, ensure that all workers wash their hands after using (or cleaning) the bathroom, changing diapers, cleaning up bodily fluids, etc. And they should always wash their hands before preparing, serving or eating food.
- Clean the bathrooms. Clean and disinfect bathrooms and diaper-changing surfaces frequently and thoroughly, using proper sanitizing products. And then wash your hands!!
- Sanitize surfaces. Sanitize and disinfect every square inch of your restaurant – thoroughly and often. This means sanitizing big things – kitchen surfaces, prep areas, dining tables – as well as smaller items like door knobs and menus, which are touched by many throughout the day. Be sure to use an effective sanitizer and disinfectant made for restaurants, such as Purell® Foodservice Surface Sanitizer, which is designed to kill a variety of pathogens (including Hep A) in one minute or less. Keep careful logs of when the restaurant is cleaned.
- Utilize single-use gloves. To prevent spreading Hep A (and other viruses/bacteria), use single-use gloves when handling ready-to-eat foods like salad greens. Change gloves when changing tasks, after using a cell phone, handling cleaning supplies, etc.
- Change diapers appropriately. Many children don’t show signs of Hep A, but if they’re infected, they could infect others through their poopy diapers. Use diaper-changing surfaces only. Never change diapers on surfaces where food is prepared, served or eaten. And, of course, wash your hands after changing diapers or touching changing tables.
- Cook shellfish thoroughly before eating it. Shellfish is a common source of Hep A contamination, so cook it properly. Sanitize all surfaces and equipment that come into contact with raw seafood to prevent cross-contamination. And wash your hands after handling raw shellfish.
- Use clean, safe water. Drink water only from approved sources. And avoid eating ready-to-eat foods (such as salad greens and other raw vegetables) that were grown in – or rinsed with – contaminated water (e.g., sewage polluted).
- Contact your local health department. If, despite your best efforts, you learn that someone on your team has contracted Hep A, immediately contact your local health department. They’ll have instructions on following proper protocols, including notifying guests and employees who may have been exposed.
Hep A is a serious threat. A Hep A outbreak could seriously sicken your guests and staff, not to mention damage (or ruin) your restaurant’s reputation. Take every precaution to prevent Hep A at your restaurant and to keep your guests, employees and business safe and healthy.
Francine L. Shaw is President/CEO of Savvy Food Safety, Inc. which offers a robust roster of services, including consulting, auditing, expert writing/updating and implementation of HACCP plans, food safety education, food safety inspections, curriculum development, and more. Francine’s diverse background includes spending over 20 years in the food service industry, beginning as an hourly employee and eventually an operating partner. She continued her career as a food safety subject matter expert working in academia as well as private sector, her company has performed thousands of food safety inspections – for both local health departments and the private sector. Francine is a well-respected international speaker, and has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the BBC World Series Radio, Dr. Oz Show, the Huffington Post, iHeartRadio, Food Safety News, Food Management Magazine, EATER, and Food Service Consultants Society International.