Thanks to Seth Slabaugh of the Muncie Indiana Star Press for his article today “January illness linked to employees – The Subway in Hartford City contributed to outbreak.”

Once again ill subway employees sicken customers – See, Subway Restaurant Shigella Outbreak Lawsuits – Illinois (2010) and Subway Hepatitis A Outbreak Lawsuits – Washington (1999), and a health department failed to disclose the link to the public.

norovirus-outbreak-2012.jpgAccording to Mr. Slabaugh:

“Sick Subway employees reported to work while ill during a Norovirus outbreak linked to the restaurant, according to a state health department report obtained by The Star Press. This information was discovered by the Blackford County Health Department during an investigation of the outbreak but was not shared with the public.

About 90 community members became ill with gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea, body aches, nausea, cramps, chills, fatigue and headache) on or after Jan. 5. The county health department began receiving calls on Jan. 7. Three victims were hospitalized, two others were treated in the emergency room and three more were treated at doctors’ offices.

Six stool samples from Subway employees analyzed at the state health department laboratory tested positive for Norovirus, according to a Feb. 7 report authored by Stephanie English, an epidemiologist at the department. “The Blackford County Health Department identified sick employees who reported working while symptomatic,” English wrote. “Four Subway employees were sick with nausea, diarrhea and/or vomiting on Saturday, Jan. 7. Most employees self reported to co-workers that employees worked while sick.”

The six-page report concluded, “Subway was a contributing factor to the spread of Norovirus in Blackford County.”

Thanks to Mr. Slabaugh and other members of the press who do the job of informing the public when public health fails to do their duty.

  • The verification of suppliers has emerged as a critical component of a retail operation’s food safety program. We continue to see firms like Subway stress supplier safety, while poor management of its own operations result in outbreaks of foodborne illness.
    In light of the costs borne by the supply chain to satisfy retail industries’ high standards, it is unfair for a firm as influential as Subway to have lax control over its own operations.
    It’s critical to have safe lettuce coming in the backdoor, but if an infected employee handles it, it negates all the costly prevention done upstream by suppliers. The revelation that this was allowed to happen creates animosity on the part of suppliers and undermines Subway’s own efforts at supplier control.
    Subway has an obligation to consumers who expect the company to be a supplier of safe wholesome food. Subway has an obligation to its suppliers to maintain the same vigilance over food safety they expect from them. In not doing so, Subway risks the reputation it has built and the value of its brand.
    Subways’ food safety management system failed as the result of poor decision making; what we see here is the failure of “food safety culture”.
    As consumers, we should expect MUCH more of Subway. As food safety professionals, we should ask “what is the root cause of this failure” and “how best can Subway’s management solve the problem”.

  • Minkpuppy

    If restaraunts PAID their sick employees to go home and stay home, it would go a long way towards preventing this type of outbreak.

  • Mary

    This is nothing new in Indiana. Local health departments call on the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) to help with foodborne illness investigations. ISDH has a long-standing history of being hush-hush with the public about such matters.
    Indiana’s retail food safety and sanitation code underwent a major update in the year 2000 and was revised again in 2004. What was then Indiana’s new food code was largely based on the FDA’s model retail food safety code. While the updated code had some important provisions regarding employee health, there is enough leeway in the code to allow ill employees to continue working as long as they have not been diagnosed with an illness due to one of the big five–Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, salmonella spp., shigella, Hepatitis A, or a Norovirus and as long as the employee is not vomiting and does not have diarrhea. A person with other symptoms that suggest a foodborne illness is present must be restricted as far as duties, but does not have to be excluded from the retail food establishment for the most part.
    Since retail food service employees often don’t have health insurance or the money to pay out of pocket for a diagnosis of illness, they tend to show up for work sick and without a definitive diagnosis.
    Since retail food establishments usually have a small number of staff, there tends to be a culture of showing up to work no matter what–or else. Even if a conscientious retail food manager or supervisor has read and fully understood the food code–unlikely in my experience–and has somehow managed to restrict an ill employee from touching any clean equipment, food, beverages, clean utensils, linens, and so on–again, very unlikely–that ill employee with restricted duties is probably going to have to go to the bathroom during the work shift. The bathroom visit will involve that employee having to touch surfaces that other employees and even customers also have to touch. For any illness that is spread via the fecal-oral route, that bathroom visit could result in many other people getting ill. So, even if a restaurant follows the employee health provisions to the letter, illness can spread easily from one employee to other employees and customers.
    For the employee health provisions to actually work, the manager or supervisor of the retail food establishment would have to go above and beyond the requirements of the food code, which would be making employees stay home even without a definitive diagnosis of foodborne illness. The culture in retail foods is exactly the opposite, however. Employees are made to feel as if they have to be dead or dying to miss a day of work.

  • Joe D

    If restaurant workers were to be paid to stay at home while sick, what would stop them from always being sick?
    Wouldn’t it be better to have a policy that encouraged sick employees to stay home with the understanding or agreement that the hours or days missed would be allowed to made up in the future via extra shifts or overtime?

  • Sam

    The root of this issue is the fact that these employees were afraid to lose their jobs if they called in sick. However it is managed, Subway needs to step up and protect their customers.