Reflection on Handling Food Safely

I recently received a telephone call on a Saturday morning from a client’s wife who was very concerned about her husband.

He had come home from work Friday  and  had become sick during the night.  We all know the scenario–vomiting, diarhea, sore throat, fever, achy, and can’t keep anything down.

She wanted to know if there was anything they could do to help his stomach settle down?  He was getting very weak from vomiting all night long in addition to the diarhea, and she was worried.   She told me luckily there was one thing in her husband’s favor, it was Saturday morning and thank goodness he had Saturdays and Sundays off from work–which would give him time to recoup before going back to work on Monday morning.

I didn’t like the sound of how things were going so I suggested she call her medical physician and get him in to be seen.  About a half hour later I received  a telephone call updating me on her husband’s condition.

I was told that her husband’s boss called demanding he come to work even though it was his day off.  When told about the sickness the boss replied that if he didn’t see him at work  he would lose his job.  Again it was reiterated how sick he was and that he couldn’t make it into work.  The man was fired from his job on the spot.  It didn’t matter that he was very sick or that it was his day off.

So why am I writing about this incident?  Because the man’s job was stocking the dairy department in a  grocery store belonging to a large national chain of grocery stores.

I began to wonder if there were laws in place about food handling in grocery stores and guidelines about sickness.  Quite frankly, I had never thought about this until the telephone calls I had received.

I first called the Department of Health for the State of Utah.   They referred to me the  County Department of Health where the grocery store was located that my client worked in.  The County Department of Health then referred me to the  State Department of Agriculture.  The State Department of Agriculture referred me to the County extension of the State Department of Agriculture.  The County extension of the State Department of Agriculture referred me to their division of Inspectors.  I was then connected to a Inspector  who had to go and look up the CODE  in a book.  The Code was  read  to me straight the food Code book regarding food safety handling and sickness.  The code went from point 2.2 to 2.11 covering different aspects of food safety.

To my amazement, the very first things listed were:  vomiting, diarhea, sore throat, fever along with many other communicable diseased and conditions.  The Code specified that the sick individual should report to their work or person in charge about their sickness AND NOT RETURN TO WORK UNTIL CLEARED BY MEDICAL DOCTOR.

These phone calls took about 3 hours of my time trying to get to the correct department and individual who could answer my question about laws governing public handling safety for food.  The fact that the code specifically covered the sickness symptoms that my client was dealing with did not matter.  His boss ordered him to go do work stocking shelves in the Dairy Department which meant he was HANDLING DAIRY PRODUCTS.   When he did not report to work he lost his job.

A week after this incident I received a telephone call from a man representing the Grocery Food Store Chain.  He informed me that the grocery store chain had a very  good quality control system in place for taking care of food safety issues and that they were very sensitive about this issue.  Many changes had been instigated one of which was that once every 2 to three months the department supervisors were asked what the Department of Agriculture’s lists of disease and symptons were with appropriate action  to take if any of those symptoms were present.

I was quiet for a moment and then asked the question “did he think that maybe the supervisors had the answers memorized?”   Besides the quiz  “Did they follow through with unannouced inspections of the physical premises and employees?” “If they did do unscheduled  inspections, what did they do if they observed a sick employee working?”  Those questions were not answered.   His telephone call to me  did not leave me reassured about food safety handling.

I began to reflect on how many times I had observed  check out clerks handling my food purchases  while sneezing,  or commenting on how sick they felt, or apologizing for their sore throat.  I also thought about all the times I have seen individuals sweeping the floor in the fresh produce department and then without changing their gloves restock fresh product in their display cases.

I though about gasoline convenience stores and the state of their bathroom cleanliness.  How did their dirty bathrooms affect their handling of the  food items they sold regarding my health?   My mind went to Drive Through establishments,   street cart vendors at Parks and in front of business offices.  Ice cream truck vendors and food vendors traveling though neighborhoods selling prepackaged food and seasonal foods.  Needless to say, my sesitivity to handling food safely has become a big eye opener.

I wonder if there could be a connection with the seasonal cold and flu epidemics we seem to go through as a nation– the many incidents of Samonella poisoning or contaminated food recalls that make the national T.V. news casts–the outbreaks of different health incidents invading our public schools?

What would happen if as consumers we began to speak appropriately to people or departments responsible for public health safety?  I think that agencies have checks and balances in place but are they being enforced or taken seriously on the job site?  Has the  dollar bottom line become more important than the safety of the consumer?  Do businesses have in place back up plans for when an employee is sick and can’t come to work that protects both the employee, customer, and business?

I probably will never have the answers to all of this but one thing I do have is my own agency to choose what I will support and what I will not support  as a consumer.  I do have a voice that I can share my concerns with local and state officials, and I can be more observant regarding what I am willing to accept or not accept regarding my health from public places that carry food.

As Always,

Dr. Janeel Henderson