Recipe for outbreak: Sick food workers

  • Article by: MIKE HUGHLETT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 27, 2014 - 10:21 AM

Ailing employees cause most norovirus cases, state says.

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A hockey banquet in 2011.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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The spread that caterers served at two prep sports banquets last month betrayed no hint of what lurked within.

Athletes from the Totino-Grace football team and the Fridley girls swim team dined on roast beef and rotisserie chicken at the prestigious Edinburgh USA country club.

The next day, the meal bit back. Students called in sick for school, parents couldn’t go to work.

They’d been hit by norovirus, the leading cause of foodborne illness. The likely culprit? Sick food service workers.

Since at least 2006, the Minnesota Health Department has concluded that sick workers were the likely or suspected cause of over 72 percent of all norovirus cases on average each year. “It’s one of the biggest problems in food safety, and arguably the biggest,” said Kirk Smith, head of the state Health Department’s foodborne disease investigation unit.

Restaurants and food service operators are supposed to have strong practices to keep ill employees out of the kitchen. But sometimes, policies aren’t adequate or properly communicated to workers, who often have an economic incentive to work because otherwise they won’t get paid.

“For these policies, it’s one thing to have them, and another thing to implement them,” said Jason Newby, Brooklyn Park’s code enforcement and public health manager. “At the end of the day, it starts with the manager. But the staff needs to tell management when they are sick, too.”

They often don’t. In a study published last month in the Journal of Food Protection, almost 60 percent of food service workers surveyed — including some in Minnesota — said they had worked while ill, mostly without management’s knowledge. Twenty percent of those worked at least once while vomiting or experiencing diarrhea.

High volume, high risk

Norovirus, which is prevalent during the winter, causes vomiting, diarrhea and cramps. Those who get it often don’t seek medical help, but the virus still causes an average of 400,000 U.S. emergency room visits annually, and up to 800 deaths, mostly among the elderly, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Big norovirus outbreaks tend to happen in high-volume dining settings such as cruise ships, nursing homes, schools and banquet facilities like Edinburgh. “This [Edinburgh] was a case of a lot of contamination all at once,” Smith said.

Lancer Hospitality, Edinburgh’s food service operator, was juggling the two prep sports banquets on Dec. 8, serving almost 350 customers.

Mendota Heights-based Lancer is used to such events, with over 30 years of experience, about $40 million in annual sales and close to 800 employees at multiple locations in Minnesota and Washington state.

But at least 57 people got sick after they attended the Totino-Grace and Fridley banquets, one of the state’s largest norovirus outbreaks in the past seven years, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The actual number is likely higher given the limits of state health investigations.

Totino-Grace’s football coach, Jeff Ferguson, told the Star Tribune that at least 75 attendees of his banquet alone fell ill.

It’s not clear what food or foods carried the bug. However, on or near Dec. 8, 13 of Lancer’s Edinburgh workers were showing signs of norovirus, Brooklyn Park health regulators concluded.

“The fact that [Lancer] had that many ill employees and didn’t seem to have implemented a very strong policy is concerning,” said April Bogard, a project manager for foodborne safety regulation at the Minnesota Department of Health.

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