Norovirus – also known as the winter vomiting bug – is one of the most common microbes that contaminate food. This virus causes gastroenteritis in human beings. The virus can infect people of all ages. In fact, the virus affects over 250 million people and cause 200,000 deaths per year. Norovirus infection is not considered dangerous and the deaths caused by this microbe are usually in less developed countries.
Dubbed as the “perfect pathogen” by scientists, this microbe is transmitted by fecally contaminated food or water, person-to-person contact, and via contaminated surfaces. Signs of a norovirus infection include nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhea, loss of taste, and abdominal cramps. An infection could also lead to severe fatigue, joint pain, muscle pain, low-grade fever, and headaches.
The Link Between Contamination and Infection
The norovirus is the leading cause of gastroenteritis outbreaks from contaminated food in the US. It only takes a small number of the microbes (as few as 18) to make a person ill. Usually, an infection occurs through improperly handled food.
Infected people can transmit the virus by touching the food without wearing gloves or placing food on a contaminated surface. Tiny drops of vomit from an infected person could also spray through the air and land on food. Essentially, once the food is exposed to vomit or feces of an infected person, the virus can cause an outbreak. There are also cases wherein foods that are grown in contaminated water and soil could cause norovirus infection.
Infection with the norovirus is at its most contagious during the first few days after recovering from the infection.
Norovirus outbreaks are common in hospitals, nursing homes, restaurants, schools, cruise ships, banquet halls, summer camps and sometimes, even family dinners. This shows that the virus is transmitted effectively by food prepared by other people. There are cases wherein an infection is caused by contaminated foods eaten raw.
Proper Food Handling Tips to Prevent an Outbreak
Clean Your Hands
The best way to prevent a norovirus outbreak is to clean your hands before and after preparing food. Wash your hand properly with soap and water, rubbing the soap in between the fingers for good measure. This goes especially if you went to the toilet in the middle of cooking a meal.
Clean All Surfaces
You want to keep all surfaces in your kitchen clean to prevent cross-contamination. Remember, some types of foods could be contaminated with the virus due to exposure to dirty water and soil. Placing these foods on your counter could spread the virus in your kitchen. Sanitize all surfaces in the kitchen including the utensils and table linens. Make a habit out of sanitizing your kitchen regularly.
Prep the Food Properly
Rinse all fruits and vegetables thoroughly. Do note that the virus can survive temperatures as high as 140°F. This means you have to cook shellfish of all kinds very well. We recommend quick steaming processes for shellfish.
Avoid Spreading the Virus
If you are infected with the norovirus, it makes sense to avoid handling food and/or limiting your contact with people. Avoid preparing food of any kind 2 to 3 days after recovering from the virus. In the US local and state health departments require food workers infected with the norovirus to stop working until at least 28 hours after recovering from the illness.