Sick employees are the leading contributors to the spread of foodborne illness in restaurants and other food establishments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. report released on Tuesday.
According to the report, between 2017 and 2019, about 40% of foodborne illness outbreaks with known causes were associated, at least in part, with contamination of food by a sick or infectious worker. In 2017, for example, Chipotle attributed an outbreak of norovirus at his restaurant in Sterling, Virginia, to an employee who came to work while sick.
Norovirus, a stomach virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea, was the most common pathogen involved in foodborne illness outbreaks in US restaurants during the years studied, according to the report. It accounted for 47% of the 800 outbreaks the CDC identified. Salmonella, a bacterium that causes diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps, accounted for nearly 19%.
The report recommended that restaurants develop and enforce policies that require sick workers to notify their manager if they have symptoms and to stay home if sick.
«Sick workers continue to play a significant role in retail food establishment outbreaks, and comprehensive sick worker policies are likely to be needed to mitigate this public health concern,» the report authors wrote. .
While most restaurants have at least some guidelines for sick workers, the CDC found that the policies are often incomplete.
About 92% of managers interviewed by the CDC said their establishment had a policy that required food workers to report symptoms if they felt sick, but only 66% said those policies were in writing. And just 23% said their restaurant’s policy listed the five symptoms that Food and Drug Administration guidelines suggest warrant notifying a manager: vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, a sore throat with a fever, or a lesion with pus. .
More than 85% of managers surveyed said their establishment had a policy preventing sick employees from working, but only 62% of managers said the policy was in writing and 18% said their policy listed all five symptoms described by the FDA.
«It’s not just about one sick employee. It’s about when you have managers, district managers and store managers, etc., who don’t follow the health department guidelines,» said Darin Detwiler, a professor of food regulatory policy at the Northeastern University who were not involved in the investigation.
Detwiler said better-paid sick leave policies, either mandated at the state level or instituted by individual companies, would make it easier to stop outbreaks. Some past research supports it: A study 2021for example, it found that Olive Garden’s decision to expand paid sick leave coverage during the pandemic reduced the rate of frontline food service employees working while sick.
However, the CDC report found that less than half of food establishments with outbreaks provided paid sick leave to at least one food worker. Fourteen states and Washington, DC have paid sick leave lawsaccording to the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank.
«If companies value the health of their employees and the health of their customers, then they wouldn’t respond reactively to these things,» Detwiler said. «They would be taking proactive steps to prevent these things from happening.»
Foodborne illnesses cause about 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths in the US each year. According to Detwiler, most of those deaths could be prevented.