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CDC Finds 40% of Food Poisoning Outbreaks Linked to Ill Employees

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said on Tuesday that between 2017 and 2019, employees who came to work unwell were responsible for 40 percent of food poisoning outbreaks with a known cause.

The paper, based on an analysis of 800 food poisoning occurrences using data from 25 state and local health agencies, suggests that paid sick leave and other measures that help ill employees might enhance food safety results.

According to the study, of the 500 cases in which investigators pinpointed at least one reason, 205 were linked to employees calling in sick. Other prevalent causes were cross-contamination of components (68) and contaminated raw food products (88) as well.

The causative agent of 555 outbreaks was identified, including viruses, bacteria, toxins, chemicals, and parasites. Salmonella and noroviruses were blamed for the vast majority of cases.

The paper concluded that “comprehensive ill worker policies will likely be necessary” to counteract these epidemics. Noting that paid sick leave rules were linked to lower incidence of food-borne disease, it cited studies showing that increased paid sick leave reduced the number of times food service employees showed up to work unwell.

Harvard Kennedy School social policy professor Daniel Schneider called the findings “sobering,” and he noted that the United States is the only affluent nation that does not provide its citizens with statutory paid sick leave.

Of the 725 managers surveyed by state and local health authorities, 665 said that employees in the food service industry were obliged to notify a supervisor if they were ill, and 620 reported that ill workers were prohibited from performing their duties. There were just 316 managers who reported that their company offered paid sick leave.

Professor Schneider oversees data collection from the retail and food service sectors as director of the Shift Project. Employees, he said, said they came to work despite feeling ill because nobody could cover for them, they worried repercussions from management, they couldn’t afford to skip work, or they felt bad about leaving their coworkers short-handed.

“Because food service jobs are so low-paid in our economy, workers face really impossible trade-offs around issues like working sick,” he added.

Restaurants, caterers, and mobile food vendors can reduce the number of sick days taken by employees by adopting “a food safety culture where absenteeism due to illness is not penalised,” as well as by improving enforcement of existing policies such as those that forbid employees from reporting to work while ill.

The research noted that the health departments that provided data on outbreaks were from “geographically diverse areas,” but it warned that the survey’s results may not be indicative of all outbreaks in the United States. It also noted that the data used was gathered before the coronavirus pandemic and that there was evidence to suggest that many grocery stores had altered their practises in response to the outbreak.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that annually 48 million individuals fall ill due to a food-borne infection. There are 128,000 hospitalisations and 3,000 fatalities.

Jonathan James
Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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