With tens of thousands exposed or sickened every year, food safety lawyer Bill Marler wonders why we aren’t vaccinating restaurant workers
The next time you go out to eat your waitperson might bring you a side of the hepatitis A Virus along with your meal.
In recent weeks, scores of restaurants—from small eateries to big chains like Papa John’s and Red Robin—have exposed thousands of patrons to this highly communicable, potentially deadly liver disease.
Despite the Food & Drug Administration having approved the hepatitis A vaccine in 1995, restaurant workers—who can easily pass hepatitis A during food handling—are not required to get the vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control has repeatedly pointed out that the consumption of worker-contaminated food is a major cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. There are approximately 83,000 cases ofhepatitis A in the U.S. every year.
“The vaccine costs $50 per person, which is tiny compared to the cost of dealing with an outbreak, but, unfortunately, the restaurant industry has chosen to be reactive instead of protective,” said Bill Marler, an attorney specializing on food safety issues.
Illustrating this reaction to hepatitis A is a warning issued in Greene County, Missouri this past May. In that case, a Red Robin restaurant exposed more than 5,000 people. Marler has filed a class action on behalf of all those that were required to stand in line to be vaccinated.
In North Carolina, a similar case in April exposed thousands who ate at a Papa John’s restaurant where a worker was sick with hepatitis A. Marler too has filed a class action on behalf of all those that were required to stand in line to be vaccinated.
But, Marler stresses, there’s as much a chance of exposure at a “ma and pa” diner as there is at a chain restaurant.
For example, Marler recently filed suit on behalf of David Cohen and Anthony Loreto, Jr. against WilliamsbridgeRestaurant, Inc., which operated the Chinese/Japanese eatery New Hawaii Sea Restaurant in the Bronx in New York.
In September 2013, the New York City Health Department issued a warning to customers of New Hawaii Sea that they may have been exposed to hepatitis A through an ill restaurant worker—a host who rarely, if ever, handled the food. An inspection of the restaurant revealed unsanitary conditions and food cross-contamination that likely aided in the spread of the disease. Patrons were urged to see a doctor immediately. A total of nine people became ill withhepatitis A during this outbreak.
Cohen, a 42-year-old volunteer firefighter, and Loreto, a 25-year-old who was still recovering from injuries sustained in a 2011 motor vehicle accident, were two of the victims. Both men ate at New Hawaii Sea Restaurant and became seriously ill.
Many people with hepatitis A don’t experience any symptoms at initial onset, but if they do these can mimic the flu. Once the disease hits the liver, victims canexperience severe stomach pain, dark urine, jaundice, itchy skin, body aches, and general weakness. The infection can continue for weeks or months. Cohen and Loreto were both out of work for about a month, and still continue to recover from their illnesses.
While the CDC has not yet called for mandatory vaccination of food-service workers, it has releasedestimates of the costs associated with infection—and they are substantial.
“The argument from the restaurant industry is that it isn’t cost effective to vaccinate against hepatitis A because of the high turnover rate among employees. That’s like not buying health insurance and just crossing your fingers that you’ll never get sick. Anyone who has ever done that will tell you that it’s a heavy bet, because if you do become sick, it’s devastating,” said Marler.
Adults who become ill with Hepatitis A miss an average of 27 days of work. When there’s an outbreak, local health departments have to devote valuable man-hours and resources notifying the public of their risk to harm. The average direct and indirect costs of hepatitis A range from $1,817 to $2,549 per case for adults and from $433 to $1,492 per case for children younger than 18. In addition, restaurants that are forced to issue hepatitis A exposure warnings are typically shut down for a period of time. Thisharms their reputation and bottom line in ways that they may no be able to recover from. For example, after being temporarily closed in September 2013, New Hawaii Sea Restaurant reopened briefly before closing its doors permanently.
All of those costs—the loss of jobs, medical care, physical pain and suffering—can be avoided for just $50 per worker.
“It’s ridiculous that states, counties, and the restaurant industry haven’t come together to eliminate this threat.hepatitis A is a serious disease, but it’s also the only food-borne illness that is vaccine-preventable. There is no reason not to vaccinate all restaurant workers; it is the right and moral thing to do,” said Marler.
ABOUT BILL MARLER:
Bill Marler is an accomplished food safety advocate and attorney. He began litigating foodborne illness cases in 1993, when he successfully represented Brianne Kiner, the most seriously injured survivor of the Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. Over the years, Bill and his firm, Marler Clark, have become the leaders in representing victims of foodborne illness. Marler Clark, The Food Safety Law Firm, is the nation’s leading law firm representing victims of hepatitis A outbreaks. The Hepatitis A lawyers of Marler Clark have represented thousands of victims of hepatitis A and other foodborne illness outbreaks and have recovered over $600 million for clients. Marler Clark is the only law firm in the nation with a practice focused exclusively on foodborne illness litigation. Our hepatitis A lawyers have litigated hepatitis A cases stemming from outbreaks traced to a variety of sources, such as green onions, lettuce and restaurant food. The law firm has brought Hepatitis A lawsuits against such companies as Subway, McDonald’s, Chipotle, Quiznos and Carl’s Jr.
Bill spends much of his time traveling to address food industry groups, fair associations, and public health groups about foodborne illness, related litigation, and surrounding issues. He has testified before Congress as well as State Legislatures. He is a frequent author of articles related to foodborne illness in food safety journals and magazines as well as on his personal blog, www.marlerblog.com. Bill also recently founded Food Safety News (www.foodsafetynews.com) as a one-stop resource for global food safety news and information.