The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a lot of foodborne illnesses outbreaks are linked back to sick restaurant workers.
The agency released a report on Tuesday saying sick employees are major contributors to the spread of foodborne illnesses at restaurants and other food establishments.
From 2017 to 2019, the CDC found about 40% of foodborne illness outbreaks with known causes were at least partly linked with food contamination by a sick or infectious worker.
One incident occurred in 2017 when Chipotle was associated with a norovirus outbreak at its restaurant in Sterling, Virginia, because a staff member came to work sick, NBC News reported.
Norovirus is a stomach bug that causes vomiting and diarrhea and was the most common pathogen surrounding foodborne illness outbreaks at restaurants across the country during the years the agency studied the issue, according to its report.
It also accounted for 47% of the 800 outbreaks that the CDC identified. While Salmonella accounted for nearly 19%.
The agency recommends restaurants implement policies that require sick workers to notify their manager of their symptoms and to stay home if they’re sick. The CDC found that the policies of most restaurants regarding ill employees are often incomplete.
“Ill workers continue to play a substantial role in retail food establishment outbreaks, and comprehensive ill worker policies will likely be necessary to mitigate this public health problem,” the report’s authors wrote.
Nearly 92% of the managers interviewed by the agency said their establishment had a policy requiring food workers to report symptoms if they feel sick. However, a mere 66% said those policies were written while another 23% said their restaurant’s policy listed all five of the symptoms that guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration suggest notifying a manager: including vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, sore throat with fever or a lesion with pus.
On the plus side, more than 85% of the managers said their establishment had a policy that prevented sick employees from working, but just 62% of managers said the policy was written.
“It’s not just about a sick employee. It’s about when you have managers and district managers and store managers, etc., that aren’t following health department guidelines,” said Darin Detwiler, a Northeastern University food regulatory policy professor who wasn’t involved in the research.
Detwiler suggests food establishments have better paid sick leave policies that should be mandated at the state level or by individual companies, which could help prevent outbreaks.
“If companies value their employees’ health and their customers’ health, then they would not be responding reactively to these things,” Detwiler said. “They would be taking proactive steps to prevent these things from happening.”
Foodborne diseases cause around 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. According to Detwiler, most of those deaths could be prevented.