YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released its summary of an assessment of foodborne illnesses at restaurants and other food retail establishments in 25 states.

The three-year assessment was conducted from 2017 to 2019 using data reported to the National Environmental Assessment Reporting System (NEARS). The CDC launched NEARS in 2014 to complement its National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS), which collects data from health departments related to foodborne illnesses.

NEARS collects additional environmental data, including the characteristics of food establishments with outbreaks (ex: the number of meals served daily) and food safety policies in these establishments.

During the 2017 and 2019 period, a total of 800 foodborne illness outbreaks were reported to NEARS by 25 state and local health departments. The most common pathogens associated with the outbreaks were norovirus (47 percent) and salmonella (18.6 percent).

About 40 percent of outbreaks had at least one reported factor associated with food contamination by an ill or infectious food worker. According to the assessment, bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat food by a food worker who was suspected to be ill was responsible for about 14.4 percent of the outbreaks.

While most of the managers that investigators interviewed about the outbreaks said they had policies in place requiring workers to notify their manager when they are ill, less than 25 percent had written policies that listed five illness symptoms that need reported to managers.

The study recommended that retail food establishments can reduce viral foodborne illness outbreaks by protecting food from contamination through proper hygiene and excluding sick workers from working. Research suggests that having written policies are more effective than verbally communicated ones, but policy implementation and compliance are also important.

NEARS data showed that fewer than half of the establishments provided paid sick leave to at least one food worker, though research suggests that paid sick leave might improve food safety outcomes. The assessment suggested a regulatory approach to these requirements in order to address the issue.

The study also recommended adopting comprehensive food safety policies, as outbreak establishments with cleaning and glove use policies had smaller norovirus outbreaks than those without those policies.

Other identified sources of contamination included raw food (17.6 percent) and cross-contamination of ingredients (13.6 percent). Another contributing factor was improper slow cooling of hot food (10.6 percent).

Data from the assessment was submitted by Alaska; California; Connecticut; Delaware; Fairfax County, Virginia; Georgia; Harris County, Texas; Indiana; Iowa; Jefferson County, Colorado; Kansas City, Missouri; Maricopa County, Arizona; Massachusetts; Michigan; Minnesota; New York; New York City, New York; North Carolina; Oregon; Rhode Island; South Carolina; Southern Nevada Health District; Tennessee; Washington; and Wisconsin.

Over sixty-five percent of the retail establishments associated with outbreaks were independently owned and served under 300 meals daily. Most were restaurants that served complex food items. The most common menu type was American (55.4 percent), and over 71 percent of the establishments received at least one critical violation on their last routine inspection before the outbreak.