Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of three guest opinion columns by Jim Mann in recognition of September as National Food Safety Month.
The more we learn about norovirus, the clearer the choices are in changing current behaviors. Foodservice operators know a lot about norovirus, especially in how to cope with an outbreak. What they are ignoring are the impacts of breakthroughs in the science of norovirus, DNA identification and in norovirus prevention technologies.
The first disregarded breakthrough is in the preventive measure of hand-washing, the number one norovirus intervention. Electronic systems are now commercially available and affordable. These innovations automatically track standards, paperlessly log actual hand-washes and motivate new, sustainable behaviors.
Whole genome sequencing (WGS) headlines the ignored advancements in microbiology and their impact on risk. Its addition to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s PulseNet laboratories is already translating into more precise outbreak sourcing. It is feeding a legal system that uses accurate DNA connections between the sickened and the source to file more lawsuits and ramp up awards and threats of executive jail time.
Norovirus thrives, survives, evolves
Norovirus is highly contagious. It is a determined survivor, living on inanimate surfaces for weeks, invisibly waiting for transportation to its next host, usually via a human hand. It commonly follows a fecal-hand-oral path of transmission.
It is a prolific virus, second only to the common cold. It sickens and kills the young and the old around the world.
Freezing doesn’t kill norovirus, nor do many common disinfectants. Norovirus from projectile vomiting and toilet flushing can be aerosolized. It hangs in the air, waiting to be and ingested, and is blown onto surfaces.
New strains rapidly evolve. These characteristics have enabled noroviruses to become the leading cause of endemic diarrheal disease across all age groups, the leading cause of foodborne disease, and the cause of half of all gastroenteritis outbreaks worldwide, according to the CDC’s Aron J. Hall, DVM, MSPH at the Division of Viral Diseases and National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
A vaccine is not available.
Workplace exclusion policies for sick employees alone are not effective. A significant percentage of norovirus carriers exhibit no symptoms, leaving hand-washing as the primary intervention.
Single-use gloves are not the answer, as industry has not come up with an effective way to motivate and control glove changes. The only people who see gloves as an effective barrier in managing the norovirus risk are the inspectors, following a food code where hand-washing is not based on risk.
Tactical hand hygiene
Hand-washing is the answer but motivating staff to practice effective hand-washing has been notably unsuccessful for decades, so long that poor hand-washing rates have become the industry norm.
The rapidly falling costs of collecting and reporting hand-washing data wirelessly and the rising risks have entered an important zone of intersection. Motivating behavior change with electronic logging of actual hand-washing is proving to be a game changer, often doubling staff hand-washing. Data melds the randomness of current hand-washing practices into a controllable and sustainable process.
Hand sanitizers too can be included in an effective norovirus control protocol provided the right product is selected. Even hand sanitizers with less than 99.999% kill of norovirus can lower the viral load and minimize transfer to other surfaces. One product, tested by Emory University, proved that process too has an effect.
Foodservice operators and food producers can now more accurately assess their risk of unwashed hands in the context of an available solution. Data is lighting the path to making hand-washing a sustainable process, complete with standards and tracking.
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