Hepatitis A in restaurant industry: Scary, inaction is scarier
Hepatitis A is raising a harrowing specter over the restaurant industry thanks to its rapid spread and high number of cases. The illness is easily spread, particularly in the sprawling food service industry where just one restaurant worker who fails to diligently wash their hands can infect many customers.
Such has been the case lately particularly in the Midwest where two Louisville workers at Domino's and Old Chicago Pizza contracted Hep A, along with Taco Bell workers in Indiana and West Virginia. But those are just the most recent instances, and the list of brands involved involves dozens of restaurants now as a brief online search daily can show anyone willing to look further.
Restaurant brands are swift to respond typically as soon as a case is diagnosed, but in such cases, it's often the case that the "genie is out of the bottle," with possibilities of customer infections having already occurred. All that is left is for brands to take is getting the word out as quickly as possible, potentially causing all kinds of public image problems. In some cases, health department warnings and advisories warn travelers of "hot" Hepatitis A areas to vaccinate against the disease ahead of visits to those regions.
"Since March 2017 there have been at least 1,200 cases of Hepatitis A reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."
The illness, hospitalizations, pain and potential brand damage have many in restaurant leadership these days holding their breath and reinforcing training around safe food-handling and sanitation processes. But it's likely there is also some confusion about the situation
That's why we turned to food safety expert and MenuTrinfo, LLC CEO Betsy Craig for some more in-depth information. Craig, who is a member of food safety business Active Food Safety, said preventing Hep A should be a huge concern for the entire restaurant industry. Below is her advice on how to prevent it and what to do if those efforts failed.
Q: What's the scope of the current outbreak of cases, and what is being done to get a handle on the problem and keep it from spreading further?
A: Since March 2017, there have been at least 1,200 cases of Hepatitis A reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the numbers are now not as readily available as the reporting has been shifted to the state level, according to their website.
To give an idea of the scope, (here are some numbers of confirmed infections in several hard-hit states for Hepatitis A in the general population):
- California had 919 cases in 2017.
- Indiana had 20 cases in 2017 and 71 so far this year.
- Kentucky had 448 cases since August 2017, including 315 hospitalizations and four deaths. The most recent death was reported earlier this month.
- Michigan had 828 cases, 665 hospitalizations and 26 deaths since the outbreak was declared there in August 2016.
- Utah, 149 cases in 201,7 and 82 so far this year, with two deaths.
The spread of Hepatitis A in the food industry is generally through hand contact when microscopic traces of fecal matter are transferred to food through hand-to-food, hand-to-surface and then to food, or surface-to-food contact. According to the Mayo Clinic's website, Hepatitis does not spread through coughing or sneezing.
Hepatitis A hasa vaccine available for the disease to prevent a person from catching the disease.
Q: What do most restaurant brands typically do to prevent these types of incidents among employees?
A: Brands can offer their employees the chance to receive a vaccine for Hepatitis A. Knowing what causes the outbreak and how to treat and prevent (it) is what can assist a brand in the fighting or prevention of the disease. Unfortunately, the contagious period begins one to two weeks before the symptoms even appear.
However, if a worker shows signs of Hepatitis A, that worker should not be allowed to work until fully recovered and cleared by a medical professional. (The Mayo Clinic advises that signs of a Hepatitis A infection include fatigue, sudden nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain or discomfort, especially near the liver, on the upper right side beneath your lower ribs, clay-colored bowel movements, loss of appetite, low-grade fever, dark urine and joint pain.).
"The very best way to help prevent Hepatitis A is to get vaccinated. If a brand does this for their workers, then sharing (information about) those preventative measures with the public would allow their customers to feel safer, if done in the right way."
Q: What kinds of best practices does your organization recommend to help restaurants contain the spread of Hep. A?
A: Using proper food safety protocol, such as adhering to proper hand washing, never allowing workers' bare hands to come in contact with ready-to-eat foods, (as well as) using gloves as a barrier, not allowing sick employees to work while sick and paying close attention to recalls, are all key to helping to control the spread of Hep. A.
Q: Why is Hep. A so problematic as far as long-term health is concerned? In other words, outside of the initial illness, what kinds of problems does it cause health-wise for people?
A: For those folks who are in what is known in the industry as the "highly susceptible population," getting a case of Hepatitis A can be life-altering or threatening.
"Hepatitis A, if it doesn't kill you initially, you will recover," said Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler in Food Safety News. "But it does have a pretty significant morbidity rate and it does have a pretty significant rate of people whose livers fail and who need a transplant.
"Even people who are modestly sick will feel like they have the worst case of the flu for about a month — that's kind of a minimum. The liver is a hugely important part of your body, and when your liver's off you feel horrible."
Q: What kinds of messaging should brands use about Hep. A?
A: The very best way to help prevent Hepatitis A is to get vaccinated. If a brand does this for their workers, then sharing (information about) those preventive measures with the public would allow their customers to feel safer if done in the right way.
Also, brands that have a robust food safety training program, ongoing training, specific training to their brand and are using accredited training and retraining should let the world know (about) their efforts. Assigning corrective actions when an employee is not following standard protocol is a great way to keep your staff mindful of the brand operating procedures.
It has been tested and proven successful that when a brand uses their own look, feel and brand identity in training it drives the message home much more clearly and more often to those you are training.
Q: Legally, what can brands and operators do to prevent this illness or even verify its existence in their employees? For instance, could a brand vaccinate or require a test for infection of an employee if they wished to make that a condition of employment, or would that be illegal under federal law?
A: Careful hand washing, standard operating procedures and an active manager control will differentiate the good from the great when it comes to food safety measure and Hepatitis A. Additionally, I believe that recommending vaccines for workers would be an incredibly smart move.
Q: I understand that handwashing is critical, but in reality, fast food workers, in particular, must work very quickly in order to keep customers happy. Do you see any ways of dealing with this among operators and employees and if so, can you share?
A: I am working super hard on changing the culture of food safety in our industry. Developing a food handler's class for the nation and working with a group to develop an active food manager control protocol will be a game-changer for the industry.
Being able, as a manager, to assign training and corrective actions and follow through and up on all issues per worker will allow a brand to be the leader in the food safety space. Technology has made it so that introducing this and implanting these automatic answers will set a new stage for customer protection and food safety confidence.
Topics: Customer Service / Experience, Food & Beverage, Food Safety, Hiring and Retention, Human Resources, Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Operations Management, Staffing & Training, Trends / Statistics, Workforce Management
Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.