How to Prevent Hepatitis A in Your Food Plants
When we think of preventing food-borne illness, pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella often come to mind. Yet, there are other illnesses which can be transmitted through food, including the hepatitis A virus (also known as HAV). While only a small percentage of cases are believed to be acquired through food exposure, an HAV-infected food handler could pass the illness along to dozens of individuals. For this reason, it’s important for all food manufacturers, processors, restaurants, and retail establishments to take a defensive approach against the spread of this condition.
What Is Hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a virus which can be transmitted by ingestion of contaminated food or water or through direct contact with an infected individual. It is the fifth most common infectious disease in the U.S.. Symptoms may develop 15 to 50 days after exposure and may include fever, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and jaundice. The overall fatality rate for the disease is just .3%, but is higher in older individuals. Symptoms typically last for several weeks and may relapse in up to 10% of cases.
Why Is It a Concern in the Food Industry?
The increase in hepatitis A cases can be attributed to many factors, including drug use. Thus, while food is one vehicle for transmission, the uptick in cases isn’t directly related to food or restaurant environments.
With that being said, transmission can take place from ill food workers to patrons in restaurants or consumers of mass-produced food. People can transmit the disease 10 to 14 days before showing symptoms, and up to 10 days after symptoms have disappeared. The risk of transmitting the virus through food is naturally likely to be higher in areas regions outbreaks.
Who’s at Risk?
Although anyone exposed to hepatitis A through food or direct contact with an infected individual could contract the illness, the following populations face the highest risk:
People in prison environments
Individuals who uses illegal drugs
In addition, certain regions of the U.S., including the western and southwestern regions, have had consistently higher incidence rates of hepatitis A.
How Can You Prevent It?
While a handful of counties have made vaccination for hepatitis A a requirement for workers in food establishments, the CDC doesn’t specifically recommend this option. Here are a few reasons why mandatory vaccination may not be well-suited to the food industry:
Only 2-3% of hepatitis A cases are acquired through food exposure.
There is fairly significant turnover in food service and the processing industry, which can make it difficult to vaccinate staff.
Mandatory vaccinations could create legal risks for food manufacturers and establishments if workers were to experience adverse effects.
Fortunately, there are many things outside of mandatory vaccinations you can do to control the risk of hepatitis A in your facility. For example, you should encourage staff to:
wash their hands frequently,
wear disposable gloves and avoid bare hand contact with ready-to-eat food, and
stay home from work when they’re feeling ill.
Additionally, you might consider offering vaccination as a voluntary option for employees, especially if your facility is located in an area prone to hepatitis A outbreaks. The FDA also provides additional guidelines for employee health and hygiene practices to help minimize the risk of food-borne illness, including hepatitis A.