Norovirus in Restaurants Behind Many US Outbreaks

Norovirus contaminated food has caused many US outbreaks often through restaurants

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Food sustains us and pleases us, but in some cases, it can also make us sick. A new report says focusing on food safety may reduce one of the most common forms of foodborne illness.

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) focused on one type of foodborne illness, norovirus, which is often spread through US restaurants.

The report found that changes in the US food service industry, such as improving food safety training programs and keeping sick workers at home, may help reduce the rate of infections with norovirus.

"Wash kitchen utensils and surfaces completely."

Norovirus is a highly contagious illness that is often spread through close person-to-person contact or through eating food that has been contaminated with the virus. According to CDC, around 20 million people in the US get sick each year from norovirus, which often causes symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea, and which is the most common cause of outbreaks from contaminated food in the US.

CDC also reported that norovirus leads to between 56,000 and 71,000 hospitalizations and 570 to 800 deaths in the US each year, and causes around one in every 15 US residents to get sick annually.

For this new report, a team of researchers led by Aron J. Hall, DVM, of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, used nationwide data on norovirus illnesses gathered through its National Outbreak Reporting System for the years 2009 to 2012.

During this time, CDC identified 1,008 reported instances of norovirus outbreaks in the US that resulted from contaminated food — around 48 percent of all US foodborne outbreaks. CDC noted that most of these outbreaks stemmed from food service settings, a category that includes restaurants, catering services and banquet facilities.

Of the 1,008 outbreaks, data were available on contributing factors for 520 outbreaks. Of these 520 outbreaks, an infected food worker was identified as a cause for norovirus' spread in 364 outbreaks (70 percent).

Of the 364 outbreaks involving an infected food worker, 196 cases (54 percent) involved food workers touching food with their bare hands that was ready to be eaten by consumers without any additional cooking or preparation.

In 67 outbreaks, one specific food category was implicated, the most common of which was leafy vegetables (in 30 percent of these outbreaks), fruits (21 percent) and mollusks (19 percent).

In light of these findings, CDC stressed the importance of safe food practices, especially in the food service industry, where the bulk of norovirus infections are thought to occur.

Practices recommended by CDC include the use of disposable gloves and proper hand washing techniques, quality food safety training programs and policies requiring sick food service workers to stay home when ill. Adherence to these safety practices should reduce norovirus illnesses, concluded Dr. Hall and team.

The report was published June 3 in CDC's Vital Signs. No conflicts of interest were reported. 

Review Date: 
June 3, 2014
Last Updated:
June 3, 2014