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Though much of the hysteria surrounding Swine Flu, or H1N1 Virus, has died down, it is still a pressing concern at the 90th annual National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show that kicked off Saturday in Chicago.
The deadly influenza strain, which has infected about 4,700 people in the United States, killing 4, led the NRA to ask Ecolab Inc., a sanitization and food safety company, to set up more than 140 automatic hand-sanitization stations around McCormick Place convention center.
“There’s not the same level of focus as there was two weeks ago, but there still a level of concern and intrigue,” said Bob Sherwood, vice-president and general manager for EcoSure, an Ecolab business. “I think there’s a lot of people thinking it’s going to come back in the fall.”
Sherwood took part in a seminar Saturday called “Learning from the H1N1 Flu outbreak,” along with Yum! Brands Inc. director of quality assurance Scott Brooks. Yum, whose brands include KFC and Pizza Hut, has updated its pandemic plan since the outbreak, putting a greater emphasis on hygiene and keeping sick workers at home, Brooks said.
Responding to the competition, Yum has ordered face masks for its employees should another outbreak occur.
“If our competition starts going into masks, we don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t have them,” Brooks said.
Another tactic quick-service restaurants could employ in an outbreak is to restrict themselves to drive-thru business, Brooks said. Starbucks limited its stores to drive-thru in Mexico at the height of swine-flu hysteria a few weeks back.
Ecolab and the NRA also erected a swine flu information center in McCormick’s north hall where doctors in white lab coats took questions from concerned attendees like Jim Mann, executive director of the Handwashingforlife Institute.
The restaurant industry needs to be more vigilant about hand hygiene, said Mann, who foresees a day when hand sanitizer will join ketchup and mustard bottles on the dining table.
“There’s very little emphasis on [hand hygiene],” Mann said. “Normally when we check rates … we find that hand washing is about .4 to .5 hand washes per hour. That’s one hand wash every two hours per person.”
The swine flu has focused the public on hand hygiene and restaurants need to respond, Mann said.
“It’s a big opportunity to focus the restaurants because they’re getting bombarded from the president on down with messages to wash your hands,” Mann said. “There’s a lot of interest, but I suspect it’ll burn out pretty soon and we’ll back to our bad habits pretty shortly.”
But there was evidence Saturday that hand hygiene was a priority among convention attendees. Sani Professional, which had a high-traffic location, dispensed more than 7,000 hand wipes in the first several hours of the show, Sani’s vice president of sales and marketing Matt Schiering said.
“We brought about 25,000 samples to distribute during the course of the show,” Schiering said. “The topic’s been on everybody’s mind. The swine flu … has generated more wide-spread awareness of keeping yourself clean.”
Still, it is unclear exactly how big a concern hand hygiene remains now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has dialed down the alert level for swine flu and lifted its recommendation against travel to Mexico. Almost four hours after the convention started, none of the hand sanitization stations needed to be refilled, said Kevin Lang, an Ecolab receiving clerk who was monitoring the stations.
—By Jordan Melnick