AKRON, Ohio—Norovirus season is underway, and it is likely to be severe, according to a norovirus expert at GOJO Industries, the maker of PURELL-branded products. After experiencing a lull during the first two years of the pandemic, norovirus cases came surging back in the first quarter of 2022, with outbreaks peaking at over 100 per week in late February, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Several elements are coming together that suggest we may soon see a surge in norovirus cases—similar to what we've seen with other viruses like RSV and flu," said Chip Manuel, Ph.D., food safety science adviser, GOJO Industries. "It's not a coincidence that U.S. norovirus cases dropped to historic lows in 2020 and 2021, then came surging back as Americans began dropping their pandemic precautions this past spring,” said Dr. Manuel.
"Part of the reason why [norovirus] is the No. 1 cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. is also that it can survive on surfaces for weeks. So even if COVID-19 goes away tomorrow, surface and hand hygiene remain a critical piece to foodborne illness prevention, particularly norovirus—and particularly for foodservice establishments where one sick worker can spread norovirus throughout an establishment, including through the food they touch," continued Dr. Manuel.
According to GOJO, foodservice establishments can prepare now with these action steps:
- Keep sick employees home. Seventy percent of norovirus outbreaks are caused by infected foodservice workers, so preventing employees from coming to work sick with norovirus is an important step in preventing outbreaks in foodservice establishments. Adopting sick leave policies and employee wellness screens will reduce the risk of a facility causing a foodborne illness outbreak. Employees who come to work sick spread the virus to foods, surfaces, customers and other employees.
- Practice frequent proper hand hygiene and minimize bare-hand contact with food. Inadequate hand hygiene and bare-hand contact with foods are the most frequently encountered contributing factors to norovirus outbreaks. Ensure bare-hand contact with foods is minimized by emphasizing proper glove use. More frequent handwashing, providing handwash stations and providing alcohol-based hand sanitizers for when soap and water are not available are all examples of best practices related to hand hygiene.
- Disinfect high-touch surfaces regularly. Establishments should continue to disinfect high-touch surfaces since they have a direct carryover to controlling foodborne illnesses, especially norovirus. Examples include frequent disinfection of restroom door handles, handwash sink faucet handles and restroom stall latches.
- Clean before you sanitize. Proper surface sanitizing requires the surface to be cleaned first to remove all food debris, fats, oils and other soils. In fact, the U.S. Food Code requires that all food-contact surfaces must be cleaned before the sanitizing step. This ensures that the sanitizer solution will remain effective, as these soils can interfere with the sanitizer's effectiveness.
- Ditch the "rag and bucket" practice. Research shows that reusable cloths can easily become breeding grounds for foodborne disease-causing bacteria then spread pathogens to many surfaces throughout an establishment. There is much room for error with reusable wiping cloths as there are many factors that staff need to get just right with the practice: The sanitizer solution must be monitored throughout the day so it maintains a required concentration level and be changed out when the solution appears dirty, plus the cloths must be stored in the solution, laundered daily and not used for multiple tasks. Switching to applying a food-contact sanitizer by spray bottle or a disposable wipe can reduce some of the risks associated with reusable cloths.
- Select an effective surface product with low toxicity that works quickly. By using ready-to-use products with short contact times (e.g., a minute or less for organisms of interest), compliance with enhanced disinfection protocols will increase, which helps reduce the risk of an outbreak within a facility, plus it saves your staff valuable time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency categorizes products from I (highly toxic) to IV (very low toxicity.) If possible, select products rated as category IV to limit your staff and guests' exposure to harsh fumes. Higher toxicity products also have precautionary statements like "Caution," which may require handwashing after use and personal protective equipment, such as gloves, gowns, and eye protection during use.
"Norovirus outbreaks are costly, they put the health of customers and employees at risk, can significantly damage a restaurant's reputation, and with labor shortages, operators likely can't afford to have employees out sick," Dr. Manuel said. "A robust food safety plan is a restaurant's insurance policy. Cases typically peak in January or February, so there is time for establishments to act now and prepare."
NACS has several food-safety resources for foodservice providers. Find them on the Food Safety topics page. NACS also offers free webinar on how to build a strong and effective food safety and cleanliness culture. The webinar, “The Case for Cleanliness,” is available to view on demand.
The inaugural NACS Food Safety Conference took place at the 2022 NACS Show and explored ways to drive change and manage risk in c-store foodservice programs. Read more about the event in the NACS Magazine article “What's Your Food Safety Culture?” in this month’s issue.
To continue dialoguing with food safety and quality assurance professionals in our industry, reach out to Chrissy Blasinsky at NACS (email@example.com) to find out how you can get involved in conversations and rely on your industry peers as a sounding board for your company’s food safety concerns.