New CDC data shows 40% of food poisoning outbreaks caused by sick workers

CDC: Sick employees cause over 40% of food-borne illnesses
CDC: Sick employees cause over 40% of food-borne illnesses
Published: May. 31, 2023 at 10:31 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - If you’ve ever had a bad case of food poisoning, turns out it might not actually be from bad food, but from employees coming in while sick.

CDC officials say more than 40% of foodborne illness outbreaks at restaurants are caused by sick workers. The CDC looked directly at outbreaks from 2017 to 2019 in 25 different states, finding about 41% of the time, the outbreaks were cause by food contamination by a contagious worker.

Health officials with Jefferson County say this is likely how many cases are spread, but they work to prevent it.

“It doesn’t take a lot of those viruses to get a person sick,” Jefferson County Health Department’s Dr. Wesley Willeford said. “Sometimes they may not know they’re sick or they spread it when they are just barely becoming sick. Sometimes, they are coming to work when they are probably a little too sick to work.”

The study examines more than 800 cases from 25 unnamed states. It found that Norovirus and Salmonella were the two causes for illness from employees. Both highly contagious and experts said all it takes is for a small amount of particles to land on the food to get you sick.

“By washing your hands consistently, regularly, and doing it very well, you are able to decrease the chance of spread this onto someone else,” Willeford said.

The study reports that many employees don’t feel like they can call in sick for work, but experts said with any kind of stomach pain, workers have to stay home.

“Employees should feel empowered to be able to say ‘hey, I’m too sick to come in. I’m afraid if I do, I’m going to get clientele sick,” Willeford said.

Officials with Jefferson County Health Department can work to track foodborne illness outbreaks locally to try and prevent spread.

“It makes it helpful when we see other people report the same thing,” Willeford said. “That’s when we can really locate it and say ‘ahh, that’s when this occurred.’ A one-off case, we might not be able to find the source, but if multiple people have it, we are usually able to say this is where the infection came from and how it came to pass. Then, as a health department, we reach out, talk with staff, give corrective measures, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The other half of the outbreaks studied by the CDC were caused by inadequate cooking, improper heating or cooling, or cross-contamination.

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