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Continued: Recipe for outbreak: Sick food workers

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

Lancer has a corporate policy on food safety, covering among other things hand-washing practices and reporting and record-keeping of employee illnesses. But Lancer acknowledged that the communication of its policy at Edinburgh essentially broke down.

Shortly after December’s outbreak, Lancer “made changes in the senior culinary management team” at Edinburgh, including installing a new food chief steeped in safety training, said Glenn Baron, the company’s president. “Obviously this is something we have taken very seriously. Our company depends on our reputation.”

A stubborn bug

Lancer has had one previous outbreak linked to ill workers, also at Edinburgh, in 2007 when 15 guests were sickened with norovirus at a groom’s dinner. The company has held the catering contract at Edinburgh — owned by the city of Brooklyn Park — for 15 years.

Lancer promptly reported the December outbreak to the city and didn’t charge the prep sports teams. Coaches for both Totino-Grace football and Fridley swimming said they’ve been satisfactorily holding banquets for years at Edinburgh and don’t expect the norovirus outbreak to change that.

Foodborne illnesses in Minnesota have fluctuated since 2005. But by far, norovirus is the leading food bug, responsible for 49 of 74 foodborne outbreaks in Minnesota in 2011 and 2012 combined, sickening at least 577 people. Data for 2013 were not available.

Norovirus is particularly hardy, living longer than many viruses and spreading in great quantities. “There’s a reason it’s the most successful food pathogen out there,” said the Health Department’s Smith.

Daube’s Bakery in Rochester learned that the hard way. The popular bakery supplied the cake for a wedding reception at Victoria’s restaurant in Rochester last March.

Twenty-one guests were sickened, according to the Health Department, and an investigation concluded that the likely contamination source was cake icing prepared by a Daube’s employee.

‘An extremely painful event’

“It was terrible — half the people at the wedding got sick,” said Cynthia Daube, the bakery’s owner, who said she’d never had a food-safety problem in 27 years. She noted that none of her own customers or staff got sick but said “it was an extremely painful event for me.”

Brian Prose, general manager of Sunsets, had a similar reaction to a 2013 norovirus outbreak at the Wayzata restaurant, the first in its 25-year history. “It was extremely embarrassing for us. We thought, ‘We’re better than that,’ but it shows you how vulnerable you are.”

The state Health Department found that at least 17 Sunsets patrons got sick, and that “multiple” ill workers likely contributed to the contamination.

At Sunsets, as at Lancer Hospitality, full-time employees get some sort of sick leave.

But part-timers don’t, a common practice in the food service industry, which relies heavily on part-time labor. “The reality is that most food workers don’t get sick time,” said the Health Department’s Bogard.

Plus, their wages are relatively low, with median pay of about $9.20 an hour.

The paycheck factor is big: 49 percent of workers surveyed in the Journal of Food Protection study published in December said “not getting paid” influenced their decision to work while sick.

“Dedication to the job” or “not wanting to leave co-workers short-staffed” were even bigger reasons workers reported for working while ill.

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