A leading food safety consultancy has said that the temporary closure of nine Wahaca branches due to a suspected norovirus outbreak offers a stark reminder of the need for restaurants to have robust personnel policies in place.
Wahaca bosses have vowed to get the bottom of how hundreds of customers and staff fell ill, but STS, which provides specialist services for caterers, food retailers and suppliers, said the source would be difficult to pinpoint.
Mike Williams, director of STS, said: “The fact that multiple branches of Wahaca have been closed in a way makes it harder to pinpoint the source of infection. Potential sources could include external contractors such as pest controllers, food delivery staff, auditors etc or even food suppliers, such as products which have been contaminated prior to delivery or even members of staff going between sites.”
Williams said the incident reinforces why restaurants need to have procedures in place to deal with such incidents, however rare they are.
“Given that person to person spread is often the source of infection, it is essential that restaurants have robust personnel policies in place, making sure that staff report illness, not just to themselves but to close family members also, especially where sickness and diarrhoea are the main symptoms,” said Williams. “This will allow restaurant management to make informed choices to help keep their establishment illness free.”
Norovirus is a notoriously difficult organism to control and can spread incredibly quickly through an establishment.
Williams continued: “There have been a number of high profile incidents including Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant and the Oriana cruise ship which go to show that high quality doesn’t necessarily protect you from infection. Norovirus is very easily spread from person to person and this highlights the need for excellent personal hygiene standards. Surprising food sources can also be the reservoir of infection with items such as raspberries and oysters being implicated in previous outbreaks. As such, maintaining and monitoring the food supply chain is just part of an ongoing control process.”
Nine Wahaca branches were closed when more than 300 people fell ill with suspected norovirus symptoms. The company has since reopened five stores after carrying out deep cleans, but four branches – all in London – remain shut Public Health England and the chain try to establish the cause of the infection.