One unintended result of the post-COVID “return to normal” will likely bea rise in food poisoning outbreaks.
With the relaxing of COVID protocols, some food poisoning experts expect to see an increase in food borne illness. While some worry that the pace of re-opening is moving too slowly, in reality it is happening in many states at a rate far faster that the Center’s for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would like. In some areas, both staff and customers are able to mingle in close quarters with no masks or other protective gear. And while this may be inevitable, it has implications well beyond COVID.
Many experts expect to see an increase in identified food borne illness outbreaks as the COVID precautions are dropped. This is in part due to the mere fact that there are vast increases in in-person dining, leading to more potential exposers to restaurant-centered food borne pathogens, but also due to the fact many of the carefully executed precautions against the spread of COVID are being withdrawn. For example, the strong emphasis on preventing workers with symptoms of an illness from coming to work may give way to the oft-seen emphasis on restaurant workers “pushing through” an illness because an establishment is understaffed. In addition, the emphasis on personal hygiene, such as careful hand washing, may return to the previous base-line where many ignored this important aspect of staying healthy. And of course, the monitoring of temperatures or other symptoms that was often in place during the COVID pandemic are being scraped, as are mask and glove mandates. These changes could lead to a resurgence of the most prolific of gastrointestinal pathogens, Norovirus, as well as to spikes in the spread of such pathogens as salmonella, E. coli, listeria, and campylobacter.
The anticipated spike in reported food borne illness outbreaks may also be the work of more accurate identification, as one food poisoning attorney, Ron Simon, was careful to note:
“One thing we always need to take into account is the fact that many health agencies, and by that I mean primarily the county and municipal food safety agencies that are on the front line, are now able to refocus on food borne illness. COVID overtaxed the health agencies, as well as the front-line medical professionals, making identification and tracing of food borne pathogens more difficult. And while I do expect to see an increase in food borne illness outbreaks, I suspect that at least some of the increase in identified and reported food borne illness outbreaks linked to restaurants in the United States will simply be the result of the fact these agencies and workers will have the time and resources, once again, to follow up on cases of reported and identified food poisoning cases.”
All in all, regardless of whether there are spikes in COVID cases again, the reopening of American restaurants and the service industry will likely see increases in reported food borne illness outbreaks. Consumers may want to act to prevent becoming one of the victims of food poisoning. To do so: (1) maintain the strong emphasis on hand washing and good personal hygiene; (2) eat at establishments with a good record of clean health inspections and that look to be following guidelines carefully, even post COIVD, because the level of attention paid to sanitary and safe food production varies greatly between restaurants; (3) avoid raw and undercooked foods; and (4) follow guidelines with regard to quickly refrigerating food not consumed immediately (whether take-out or left-overs), and discarding food not consumed int eh next 24 hours.
As American restaurants reopen, and communities return to some semblance of “normal,” it is probably expected that along with he “good” will come the “bad.” But proper attention to food safety and carrying on some of the lessons learned from COVID, may help consumers keep their families and selves safe from food borne illness.