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February 8, 2018

Norovirus at the Olympics Brings Food Safety Center Stage

Written by Emily Dumas

The highly contagious winter stomach bug, norovirus, has hit the Olympic Village in Pyeongchang. With the Olympics set to start this week, hundreds of staff members are being quarantined to their rooms to be tested for the virus and prevent the spread of the illness to the athletes and other individuals in the village. The security staff who are now in quarantine, are being replaced by 900 military personnel until the outbreak has passed.

What is Norovirus?

Norovirus, as explained by the Mayo Clinic, “is highly contagious and commonly spread through food or water that is contaminated during preparation or contaminated surfaces. You can also be infected through close contact with an infected person.” Symptoms of norovirus include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, and fever. The virus spreads like wildfire, and once exposed, symptoms begin within 12-48 hours.

Food Safety Risk

Not only is it spread by direct contact, which is a major concern for those in the Olympic Village but norovirus is commonly spread through food. When food is improperly handled, prepared by someone who is infected, or there aren’t strong employee policies in place, there is a risk of norovirus spreading. Think of the Chipotle incidents that have happened throughout recent years - hundreds of Chipotle customers contracted norovirus, and the Chipotle brand suffered immensely. This was due to improper sanitization and due to a lack of strong employee guidelines. Employees showed up to work sick which in turn infected their customers.

Luckily, the water used for cooking and consumption at the Olympic Village has been tested for norovirus, and the results returned negative. When the dining facilities open on Friday, hygiene inspections will be conducted to be sure there is no norovirus present in common areas. Even still, quarantining potentially infected individuals is the safest and most effective solution to keep the virus under control.

What Can We Learn?

Although this isn’t directly a food safety disaster, it’s still an issue of public health. Norovirus is one of the most common illnesses spread via human contact, and a common epicenter of the virus is a restaurant or highly populated areas. To prevent the spread of norovirus, follow these tips:

  1. Wash your hands and ensure that all employees wash their hands before returning to work.
  2. Have strict hygiene rules in place. Ensure that all surfaces and tools are being disinfected properly.
  3. Don’t allow employees to work if they are presenting symptoms of norovirus, or any illness. Create a flexible policy and don’t penalize employees who call out sick.
  4. Enforce all food safety rules and regulations to prevent the spread of preventable illnesses.

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