While many restaurant owners, operators, or managers may believe their restaurant could never fall victim to a foodborne illness outbreak, the reality is an outbreak can happen to anyone, anywhere, and at any time.
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According to a 2015 CDC report, there has been a rise in multistate foodborne illness-related outbreaks. In fact, the CDC reports that in 2014 alone, there were 864 foodborne disease outbreaks, resulting in 13,246 illnesses, 712 hospitalizations, 21 deaths, and 21 food recalls. Based on these numbers, it is evident that food service establishments need to re-evaluate current food safety practices to ensure they are doing everything they can to mitigate the risk of foodborne illness, which can be incredibly costly to both their bottom line and reputation.
So how do these dangerous pathogens find their way into a restaurant? Unfortunately, there are many ways risky microorganisms can enter. Some walk through the front door with restaurant guests, which is often a largely overlooked risk. Others come in with the food supply. For example, if a restaurant does not follow safe handling, preparation, and storage protocols, they might be at risk for an outbreak. Employees can also play a role, especially if they come to work sick or do not follow proper hygiene protocols.
According to the CDC, there are more than 250 foodborne illnesses caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites, toxins, metals, and prions. Some of the most common foodborne pathogens are Listeria, E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter and viruses like Hepatitis A and Norovirus, all of which pose a serious threat to public health.
Listeria frequently makes headlines. It is unique in that it can grow at low temperatures, whereas other bacteria need higher temperatures to grow. Another key attribute of Listeria is that can come from the environment and is spread to the food through cross-contamination. It is most dangerous for immunocompromised individuals, especially pregnant women, because it can lead to infant mortality.
E. coli, which causes intestinal illness and has been linked to many outbreaks, can cause an infection even if you ingest only small amounts, according to the Mayo Clinic. The most common way to acquire an E. coli infection is by eating contaminated food, including fresh produce. The bacteria is spread by a fecal-to-oral route—it can start at the farm with contamination and then infect by the food not being prepared properly (e.g. not cooked to the correct temperature), poor hand hygiene, or cross-contamination due to not properly cleaning and sanitizing surfaces.
Salmonella is another bacteria often associated with foodborne illness that affects the intestinal tract. It is prevalent in food, and food animals such as cattle, pigs, and chickens, according to the World Health Organization. Eating food contaminated with feces is the most common way people become infected with Salmonella.
Norovirus is a highly contagious virus that is spread most commonly through human-to-food-to-human contact in a food service environment due to poor hand hygiene. This virus often survives for weeks in the environment. Humans can still be infectious and transfer the virus even if they are not showing any symptoms.
Hepatitis A is a viral infection that can be prevented through vaccination. However, unvaccinated people can become infected by a fecal-to-oral route of exposure—ingestion of contaminated feces, which is why proper handwashing, specifically after using the restroom, is important. Other preventive measures include getting a vaccination and avoiding eating raw or undercooked oysters and shellfish. Symptoms of Hepatitis A infection include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, headache, and yellowing of the skin and eyes.
Camplylobacter typically comes from raw or undercooked poultry. FoodSafety.gov emphasizes that it’s critical to properly handle poultry in order to prevent cross-contamination and to cook and hold poultry at safe minimum temperatures.