According to the Center for Disease Control, 21 million people in this country will become ill from food poisoning this year. We have been conditioned to think in terms of salmonella and E. coli as related to food poisoning and these are certainly two of the common villains. However, according to the experts at the University of North Carolina, more than 58 percent of all food poisoning is caused by norovirus in the United States.
Norovirus is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States, and according the Center for Disease Control, it causes 19-21 million illnesses each year. It contributes to 56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations and between 570 and 800 deaths.
Norovirus, originally known as the Norwalk virus because it was first identified in Norwalk, Ohio, is very contagious and can infect anyone. You can get it from another person infected with it, from contaminated food or water or by touching contaminated surfaces. People in the food service, harvesting and in stores are often carriers.
The virus causes inflammation in your stomach or intestines or both. The symptoms of norovirus poisoning are about the same as the flu. They include stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. Infected people generally feel seriously ill for 24-48 hours and then they feel normal again. For most healthy people, the biggest problem is that while you are sick you wish you were dead. For people with weakened immune systems, the old or very young children, norovirus is a much bigger problem and can sometimes be fatal.
While people can get norovirus illness at any time of the year, it is most common in the winter. When a new virus develops there can be 50 percent more cases than in normal years.
In terms of food poisoning, the good news is that salmonella, E. coli and various other bacteria, can be controlled by cooking. The bad news is that no one yet knows whether or not heat destroys norovirus. It may or may not. For sure, it can withstand heat of up to 140 degrees — the temperature used for quick steaming of shellfish.
A study is currently underway to find out how to control norovirus through joint research of 17 higher education facilities and led by the University of North Carolina. It is being funded with a $25 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. The intent is to find concrete methods of norovirus control.
People can and should take steps to avoid contaminating food with Norovirus. Hand washing is a must. We have the idea that hand washing is about killing micro-organisms, and we don’t know what kills norovirus yet. However, hand washing is about lathering up to loosen the germs and rinsing them away.
Hot and cold buffets are an easy way to eat and very efficient for getting foods out. However, they can be a concern. There are two chief culprits to a buffet: Food service workers and the public.
This is not a call-away from eating at buffets. Just know what to watch for.
A buffet should be generally clean. Do you see steam wafting up from hot foods? Is the sneeze guard clean? Is there someone whose only job is to take care of the buffet? Are they constantly taking care of pans, moving pans around, getting spoons, wiping up spills, etc?
That person should also be on the lookout for patrons who may be touching food or handling serving utensils inappropriately and taking care of cleaning up after them.