School Norovirus Outbreaks Often the Result of Lax Rules, Inspections

We’ve been following the issue of meats being supplied to this country’s school lunch program that are not always as actively tested for food borne pathogens as some meat used in fast food restaurants. We’ve also been following stories involving outbreaks of <"http://www.yourlawyer.com/topics/overview/norovirus">Norovirus in schools, most recently an outbreak that sickened hundreds in a Staten Island school over the past week.

Now, USA Today is reporting that school cafeterias are not being vigilantly inspected and people are falling ill as a result, specifically from Norovirus. For instance, said USA Today, in North Dakota, a Trinity High School cafeteria worker who was sick with a stomach virus one day, returned to work the next day, feeling better but apparently still contagious. She prepared lettuce for lunch—not wearing gloves—and the following day over 50 students and eight faculty fell ill with what appeared to be the same illness as the cafeteria worker, said USA Today. State officials said that Norovirus was to blame and that the food worker was not wearing gloves when she cut the lettuce, probably being contagious for two days following the end of her symptoms.

Norovirus, a group of viruses that cause gastroenteritis are not helped with antibiotics. People become infected by eating food or drinking liquids contaminated with Norovirus; touching surfaces or objects contaminated with Norovirus, and then placing their hand in their mouth; and having direct contact with another person who is infected and showing symptoms. People may feel very sick and vomit many times a day. Sometimes people are unable to drink enough liquids to replenish the liquids lost due to vomiting and diarrhea and can become dehydrated and require special medical attention. Norovirus, which can survive for weeks on surfaces at room temperature, can be difficult to eliminate, and can only be killed with chorine bleach. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers and other preparations are not too helpful.

According to USA Today’s investigation, no food borne sickness is involved with improper food handling as often as Norovirus, causing no less than one-third—7,500—of all of the school-reported food borne illnesses, some 23,000, citing U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data from 1998 through 2007.

USA Today also noted that despite that many Norovirus outbreaks originate in cafeterias, over 8,500 schools never had their kitchens inspected in 2008 and 18,000 did not meet mandates—part of the National School Lunch Program—under the Child Nutrition Act which requires such inspections occur twice yearly. One such mandate requires the wearing of gloves when preparing school lunches.

USA Today’s investigation revealed, among other issues, broad inexperience among food preparers, that most Norovirus infections originate with food handlers, rampant inappropriate cleaning practices, and situations in which meat products were undercooked. “We had some stunning evidence of terrible sanitary conditions in school cafeterias across America, said Senator Dick Durbin (Democrat-Illinois), quoted USA Today. “Kids were at risk,” Durbin added.

As part of its investigation, USA Today looked at inspection reports from schools nationwide and found, among other issues, that the individual in charge of an elementary school cafeteria in Virginia “did not demonstrate … knowledge of the required temperatures and times for the safe refrigerated storage.” In another inspection, said USA Today, a live rodent was located under a table where food was being prepared and no hot water was available in sinks used in the kitchen for hand washing, both in a Philadelphia school. In a Phoenix school inspection, old food that was described as “potentially hazardous” was found in a cooler.

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