Ohio State Training Helps Restaurants Avoid Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – Say a restaurant employee doesn’t wash his or her hands after going to the bathroom or comes to work sick. If a foodborne illness outbreak occurs as a result, it could cost a restaurant more than $2.5 million.

That’s the conclusion of a new Johns Hopkins University study that found that the cost of a single foodborne illness outbreak at a fast food restaurant is between $3,968 and $1.9 million. The costs are potentially even higher for higher-end restaurants, between $8,273 and $2.6 million.

To help restaurants and the food service industry lessen their odds of having a foodborne illness, food safety experts with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) at The Ohio State University offer food safety training to Ohio food service employees.

“Restaurant employees have a lot of responsibility when it comes to food safety,” said Abby Snyder, a CFAES assistant professor and food safety field specialist. “By having strong food safety programs in place, it not only protects public health, but it also helps a restaurant protect its business from the serious financial consequences associated with outbreaks of foodborne disease, from having to throw out food, to legal fees, or even having to close a restaurant or food business.

“Not to mention the potential long-term impact from negative consumer perception of your business.” 

The ServSafe training is offered by Ohio State University Extension, which is the outreach arm of CFAES. It focuses on key areas to reduce the transmission of foodborne illness, including employee health and hygiene; cleaning and sanitizing equipment and utensils; process management; and ingredient sourcing, preparation and storage, among others, Snyder said.

In the last year alone, OSU Extension has offered 125 food safety trainings for the restaurant industry and trained 1,700 food service employees, including restaurant managers, school food service, nursing homes and other food service personnel.

“Restaurants and bars are a growing part of the food industry in Ohio,” she said. “Recognizing that food safety is an important issue to these businesses, CFAES offers a variety of programs addressing food safety in food service.

“By offering food handler training at several levels, OSU Extension helps facilitate restaurant regulatory compliance and can help protect public health by preventing the spread of foodborne illness.”

The issue of food safety is significant. Every year, some 48 million people get foodborne illnesses, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2015 alone, there were 469 reports of foodborne illness outbreaks in restaurants, according to the CDC. The majority of the illnesses were norovirus, E. coli and Salmonella, the CDC said. And in 2016, there were 37 confirmed foodborne illness outbreaks in Ohio, according to the Ohio Department of Health. The largest culprit in the Ohio outbreaks: Salmonella and norovirus.

Norovirus, which is the most common cause of restaurant-associated outbreaks with a single confirmed source, and E. coli are typically spread through fecal contamination. Salmonella, which when found in eggs, is spread through poultry droppings or infected laying hens.

For most people, the symptoms of a foodborne illness include vomiting and diarrhea, and victims recover without medical intervention, Snyder said.

“However, some of the illnesses result in much more severe disease consequences, including hospitalizations, long-term negative health outcomes and even death,” she said.

As a consequence, food producers and handlers have a responsibility to implement practices to help ensure food safety, Snyder said.

“For example, you have to make sure that a sick employee doesn’t come to work because foodborne pathogens, including norovirus, can be spread from person to person,” she said. “That may seem simple, but you have to get buy-in from managers and employees to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

The advantage of the food safety training offered throughout the state by OSU Extension is its availability to small, medium and large food service establishments. The classes are taught by OSU Extension Family and Consumer Sciences educators, who are certified instructors through the National Restaurant Association. The classes are offered at several sites statewide.

“Protecting public health is one of the major reasons why we offer this program,” Snyder said. “Improving health and wellness is one of OSU Extension’s primary impact areas, so by offering this training, we’re hoping to reduce foodborne illness across Ohio.

“The training also helps support the sustainability of the food service industry and promotes career skill development, which is part of our mission as well.”

Tracy Turner
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Abby Snyder