Prevent spread of norovirus during holidays


By Carol Ann Burtness

Food Science Educator

U of M Extension Service

A mild case of overeating might be expected over the holidays. But make sure your family and friends go home with no more than that -- and not a case of foodborne illness.

Norovirus is the foodborne illness we've heard about on cruise ships and in restaurants, hospitals, and schools. Norovirus is also the leading cause of foodborne illness outbreaks in Minnesota.

This highly contagious virus is usually spread by direct person-to-person contact or through contaminated food. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea with a low-grade fever and chills. Symptoms usually disappear after a couple days, but infected people can still spread the disease up to two weeks after symptoms end.

Foodborne viral outbreaks usually occur when an infected person with inadequately washed hands handles food that is served raw, or handles ready-to-eat foods such as salads, vegetable trays or cookies. Touching surfaces or sharing contaminated food utensils or drinks can also transfer the virus. Food served buffet-style makes it easy to share contaminated food items.

The best way to prevent the spread of this virus is to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Handwashing is important before preparing food, before eating and after using the bathroom. Also wash your hands before and after changing diapers or assisting someone who is ill.

Other ways to prevent norovirus:

Wash fruits and vegetables before serving, especially if served raw.

Stay home if you are ill with diarrhea and vomiting.

Keep sick children and ill infants in diapers away from food preparation and serving areas.

Toss contaminated food items.

Clean and sanitize contaminated surfaces with a bleach solution (1 teaspoon bleach mixed with 1 quart of water).

Follow these tips to keep holiday buffets safe:

Serve food in small containers and replace them often That will help keep hands from contaminating more food with bacteria and viruses. Also, the new dish will keep the food at a safe temperature longer.

Throw out food that has remained at room temperature for more than two hours.

Keep hot foods hot (140 degrees F or warmer) with chafing dishes, crock pots and warming trays. Use a food thermometer to check temperatures.

Keep ready-to-eat foods that contain eggs, meat and dairy products (e.g. eggnog, cream-filled cakes and pies, and foods frosted with cream cheese or whipped topping) in the refrigerator until it's time to serve them.

And when serving dips, place a spoon near the serving bowl to encourage guests to spoon the dip onto plates. This can help prevent contamination by discouraging "double dipping."


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