Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness. The highly contagious virus sickens 20 million Americans and causes up to 800 deaths every year. It has commonly been referred to as the “cruise ship virus” as a result of some highly publicized cases of outbreaks on the high seas. However, it has been discovered that food handlers at restaurants, such as cooks and waiters, are responsible for 70% of norovirus outbreaks.
The virus is mostly spread through employees touching “ready to eat” foods, such as fruit or sandwiches, with their bare hands, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the same report, one in five restaurant employees have admitted to showing up to work in the past year while sick with diarrhea and vomiting, the two main symptoms of norovirus. More than 90% of contamination occurred during food preparation, and 75% of food involved in outbreaks was consumed raw.
As few as 18 viral particles, which are small enough to fit on the head of a pin, can make people sick. The virus can spread rapidly in close quarters such as dorms, nursing homes, nurseries and, yes, cruise ships. Most cases of norovirus deaths are children or elderly. The bug can make people ill so quickly that they may not have time to make it to the bathroom, according to Doug Powell, a food safety expert from Brisbane, Australia.
What make norovirus even more difficult to deal with is that it’s a very resilient bug. Alcohol based hand sanitizers don’t quite do the trick, which makes frequent hand washing very important. Cooking food does not necessarily kill the virus either. Norovirus can survive the freezer and cooking temperatures of above 140 degrees.
So, what the hell are we supposed to do?