October 30, 2014

Restaurant Responsibility in Spotlight as Michigan Probes E. coli Outbreak

Transmission of pathogens from food workers to the food they handle is implicated as a contributing factor in approximately 20 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks, including The Ambassador restaurant E. coli outbreak announced January 13 by health officials in Houghton, Michigan.

The Western Upper Peninsula Health Department is continuing to investigate the outbreak, which sickened at least seven people who ate at the restaurant during the Christmas holiday. Four of those case-patients were hospitalized with severe infections of E. coli O157:H7.

An official statement from health authorities in the area said the outbreak has been traced to an ill food worker at the restaurant, which continues to be open for business.

The outbreak raises questions about restaurant training and policy regarding workers who are experiencing diarrhea or vomiting. Regulations vary by jurisdiction, but many health agencies have reporting requirements and most have prohibitions or at least admonitions against contagious employees working around food.

North Carolina researchers did a study now on file with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says restaurants that are busy are more prone to have workers who show up while sick with diarrhea or vomiting. In the nine-state study, 12 percent of workers interviewed said they had worked while sick – a surprisingly high ratio.

When someone is infected with E. coli, Salmonella, Shigella or Hepatitis A, they should be tested and cleared by a physician before returning to their restaurant job or any food service position. Someone who is infected with E. coli O157:H7, for example, can be contagious even when they are free of their initial symptoms.

It is up to restaurant owners to implement training and adopt strict policies to keep workers at home while they are sick. Employees, too, have a responsibility to self-report their illnesses to their managers and the health department if managers don’t allow them to go home or stay home.

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