September is National Food Safety Month, so the time seemed right for a discussion with Jay Lerdal, product manager of the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe program.
FE&S: What is the theme for this year’s National Food Safety Month?
JL: The National Restaurant Association and key industry players started National Food Safety Month back in 1994. Once a year, we take the month of September and carve out different topics that are relevant at the time. This year, we’re focusing on two viruses: the norovirus and Hepatitis A.
FE&S: What are the activities or educational programs set up for this topic?
JL: We broke this year’s topic into five different weeks covering different aspects related to the viruses. We’re kicking off Week 1 with virus basics; namely, how a virus is different from bacteria or other contamination. Weeks 2 and 3 focus on the most common viruses today that cause foodborne illness, which is norovirus and Hepatitis A. In Weeks 4 and 5 we have more actionable items. We’ll cover what managers can do to encourage handwashing, proper sanitation and avoiding bare hand contact, as well as how to spot sickness among employees and determine if they should stay home. Week 5 takes a deeper dive into what else operators can do to keep their guests safe.
FE&S: How common are norovirus and Hepatitis A outbreaks these days?
JL: Norovirus has been in the news a lot lately, but the good news is it’s actually less common than people might think. There are more than one million restaurant locations and thousands of restaurant workers nationwide, but you only hear about outbreaks on occasion. Outbreaks associated with Hepatitis A in particular have dropped dramatically, largely due to people getting vaccinations, but it’s still one of the more prevalent viruses when it comes to foodborne illness. Both of these viruses stem from people who are sick and preparing food, and from dirty hands.
FE&S: How do people get norovirus?
JL: They can get it from other people or even from animals, or from water or surfaces that are contaminated. Norovirus is transmitted also through the air so if you are around someone [who is] contaminated and you’re exposed to it you can become a host even 24 hours before your symptoms show. This is why it’s especially important to prevent the spread of norovirus through proper handwashing and sanitation.
FE&S: Why do we always hear about norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships?
JL: Anywhere there is a large concentration of people you have a greater chance of an outbreak. Cruise ships are one example. The issue even came up most recently at the Republican National Convention where some delegates got sick.
FE&S: Can you tell us more about those important, Week 4 actionable items?
JL: The most important thing we can tell restaurants in terms of transferring symptoms is to tell employees to stay home when they are sick. We also help managers identify the main symptoms of norovirus and Hep A. If someone is complaining about abdominal pains or cramping, that could be a sign of both. Especially if there is vomiting or diarrhea, we recommend employees stay out of the workplace 24 hours after their symptoms have gone away.
FE&S: What are some of the learning activities included in this year’s National Food Safety Month education?
JL: During each week of the program, we have a one-page flier on that weekly topic that can be posted in break rooms or presented during shift meetings. After that we have activities for employees that can be provided or presented by a manager, such as fill-in-the-blank activities, circle which is correct, true or false, and other active learning games. We also have two videos posted on www.foodsafetymonth.com and three infographics that can be used by managers or also posted in break rooms to visually point out the important steps of proper handwashing and other ways to keep guests safe. We have a joke — people always ask, “You’re covering handwashing, again?” And yes we are, but we can’t stress enough that handwashing is one of the most important ways to stop foodborne illnesses. It’s worth constantly reminding people about it.
FE&S: What are the key equipment supplies for food safety?
JL: Handwashing stations, of course, are very important. But we’re also educating our members about the proper cleaning and disinfectant supplies — even masks and gloves — needed should there be a bodily fluid spill in the workplace.
FE&S: What about using gloves when preparing food?
JL: Gloves are definitely a great piece of personal protective equipment but they don’t take the place of handwashing. Gloves are a great tool, but they need to be used properly. You still can’t grab raw chicken and then grab lettuce while wearing the same gloves.
FE&S: Are you working on any updates to the manual?
JL: We are currently working on an update that will be out, we think, next year. In addition, the ServSafe alcohol product will be getting an update in the first half of next year. We are also making some important technology changes over the next few months to be more mobile interactive. We will be moving the delivery of our programs from more of a desktop format to more of a mobile one. This is a major change for us that we’re pretty excited about.