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Foodborne illness: Understanding the invisible enemy

September 29, 2023

When consumers pick up groceries for dinner or pop into their neighborhood café for a quick meal, they trust that the food in front of them is safe to eat. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention1 (CDC), each year in the United States 48 million Americans become sick with a foodborne illness, 128,000 are ill enough to be hospitalized and 3,000 more die. Beyond the human toll, the U.S. Department of Agriculture2 (USDA) estimates that foodborne illness caused by the top pathogens creates an economic burden of more than $17.6 billion.

Consumers at risk

According to the USDA, just 15 microorganisms are responsible for 95% of cases of foodborne illness. These include norovirus, salmonella and clostridium perfringens. Food can become contaminated anywhere it is grown, handled, processed, transported, stored, prepared or served, which amplifies the risk and can make it hard to pinpoint the source of infection in the event of an outbreak.

“A big risk factor is human error, which is one of the top contributors to why people get ill,” says Alex Pittignano, one of the partners running at Axon Crisis Management.

These errors run the gamut from minor to egregious. They can include not declaring allergens on labels or menus and leaving raw meat at room temperature overnight, as well as cross contamination of uncooked food, such as chicken, with ready-to-eat foods like fruit or salad. Unfortunately, any of these events can sicken consumers if the conditions are right.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, USDA, CDC and other state and local health inspection agencies have programs designed to protect consumers from the risk of foodborne illness, something Pittignano says has helped save lives. However, there are no guarantees.

“While we have come a long way as a society in managing and mitigating the risk of foodborne illness, it’s not something that can be completely eliminated,” explains Pittignano. “The very long food chain creates issues.”

The risky business of restaurants

The threat of foodborne illness creates risks for a wide range of businesses, including farmers, food processing plants, manufacturers, distributors, retailers and more. However, they’re not alone.

“Another growing area where there is need for protection is restaurants,” notes Pittignano.

That’s because even if the restaurant owner trains staff to handle food correctly every step of the way, there’s no guarantee that it won’t sicken diners.

“The food can be contaminated before it reaches their door,” he explains. “If a restaurant receives something from a supplier that is contaminated and feeds it to customers, it can make many customers sick.”

Human error compounds that risk. With the shortage of restaurant workers in the aftermath of the pandemic and the industry’s high turnover rate, every staff member might not be experienced in handling food, even if they have completed their required safe food handling training.

Also, a sick restaurant worker can unwittingly pass along illnesses like hepatitis A to customers.

“Hepatitis A can end up in food or on surfaces and be transmitted to diners,” says Pittignano, “and the restaurant owner won’t know about it until it is too late.”

Measures to create safer outcomes

Businesses that handle food aren’t just at risk of liability. In the event of a foodborne illness outbreak, they may suffer reputation damage, loss of business income, expenses related to cleaning up contamination, consultant fees and other out-of-pocket costs as they try to restore normal operations.

Axon Crisis Management offers resources to insureds to help them reduce their risk.

“We rely heavily on food safety consultants and training,” he explains. “This helps manufacturers or restaurants do their best to educate their workforce, which can help eliminate a lot of foodborne illness issues.”

Of course, businesses that handle food should invest in insurance coverage to protect them in the event of a foodborne illness outbreak. Product liability and general liability policies offer coverage that may protect businesses should foodborne illness impact their customers.

In addition, restaurant owners should consider Axon Crisis Management’s Foodborne Illness and Contamination Insurance. This insurance policy provides broad first party coverage, including loss of gross profit, replacement of contaminated food, remediation costs, rehabilitation and marketing costs, and access to expert consultancy services when a restaurant is impacted by a foodborne illness incident.

“Having the right coverage can really help mitigate the financial toll foodborne illness can take on a business,” Pittignano notes.

So while the best way to deal with a foodborne illness incident is to prevent one from happening in the first place, having the right insurance coverage in place can help a business get back on track as quickly as possible should one occur.