What is norovirus?
Known in lay terms as the winter vomiting bug, norovirus can cause dangerous infections of the stomach and bowel and is, in fact, one of the most common causes of gastroenteritis in the UK. The resulting symptoms are highly unpleasant, since they include diarrhoea, vomiting and fever and, in certain circumstances, this can lead to severe dehydration.
How does norovirus spread?
Norovirus is highly infectious, and the risks of contracting an illness from it can be serious, which is why maintaining good hygiene at all times is essential. The virus can spread from an infected person to somebody else. It can also spread by eating or drinking contaminated products (including food contaminated at its source, such as oysters taken from contaminated water), or when a person or a food comes into contact with an object or surface that has been contaminated. A huge problem with norovirus is that it is able to survive in a contaminated spot for a number of days, which is why those handling food should always ensure excellent hygiene and safety at all times, both in the kitchen and outside of it.
How can food handlers improve food hygiene and safety to reduce the risk of norovirus transmission?
Hand washing should form an innate part of a food handler’s behaviour. It is important to prevent the transmission of all viruses and bacteria, not just norovirus. To get rid of as many pathogens as possible, hands should be washed thoroughly with hot water and soap before and after any food is prepared or handled. The same is also necessary in other circumstances, especially after going to the toilet. The reason for this is because if any trace of vomit or faeces from someone who is infected gets onto the food, there is a risk that another person who handles or eats the food will be infected. It is important to note that hand sanitizers cannot be used as a sufficient substitution for hand washing when it comes to norovirus because some are effective against this particular virus while others have no effect at all.
Another extremely important point for food handlers to recognise is that they should not return to work until they have fully recovered which will be three days after symptoms have subsided. This is because someone infected with norovirus is not only highly contagious during the time they display symptoms, but also for a number of days afterwards when norovirus particles continue to be shed. Therefore, a food handler must not be involved in any food preparation, cooking or serving areas, and must not be allowed on site if ill, otherwise an outbreak of norovirus infection could occur.
In the unfortunate event of an employee becoming ill on site, care must be taken to make sure that any clothing or materials soiled by vomit or faeces is machine washed straight away and then dried. Any sinks or bathrooms in which someone has been ill must also be thoroughly cleaned to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
Disinfecting surfaces is also a must, as is ensuring that utensils and kitchen equipment are kept clean. Furthermore, food handlers should ideally not have bare hand contact with any food ready to be eaten, and should preferably wear single-use gloves. Extremely good hand washing procedures must be in place if such direct contact is allowed, given that only a small number of norovirus cells are needed to cause infection in a person.
Finally, it must be remembered that these food hygiene procedures must be carried out in addition to those already in place. Norovirus outbreaks are unfortunately all too common and can occur even when the most stringent hygiene and safety levels are enforced. However, the majority of outbreaks are avoidable and food handlers have a particularly important role in helping to minimise the risk to others of becoming contaminated with this virus. Norovirus not only brings significant problems of disease but can result in becoming an economic burden. Food handlers should be strict about the way in which they carry out tasks in the workplace, always ensuring the highest level of hygiene and safety.