BINGHAM FARMS, Mich. -- In a move that could have implications for supermarkets that operate "high-touch" fresh-foods environments, Unique Restaurant Corporation, based here, began mandating vaccinations against the Hepatitis A virus to some 250 employees out of concern for customer safety.
Though no cases of Hepatitis A have been connected to any of its restaurants or food-service facilities, Matt Prentice, president of the multiconcept operator, decided to inoculate all of his food handlers as a way of ensuring consumer safety, as well as that of his workers, in an area hit hard by Hepatitis A epidemics in the past two years.
The process, which will cost URC more than $30,000, was completed over a span of four days at Morel's -- A Michigan Bistro, Bingham Farms, Mich.; Northern Lakes Seafood Co., Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; and Duet at Orchestra Place, Detroit.
"We take every precaution to ensure safe food handling," said Prentice. "But no matter how clean the restaurant, how well-trained or watchful the staff, vaccination is the only guaranteed way to prevent the spreading of Hepatitis A."
Employees vaccinated to date include all dishwashers, line cooks, kitchen management, prep cooks and garde mangers. All food handlers hired in the future will be required to get the Hepatitis A shot as part of their pre-employment drug screen and physical. URC employees were given SmithKline Beecham's Havrix, a Hepatitis A vaccine.
"URC has a history of being proactive when it comes to guest and employee safety. This is our insurance," said Prentice.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, estimates that 125,000 to 200,000 cases of Hepatitis A are reported each year in the United States, with the Metro Detroit area having seen two outbreaks - and one fatality - due to food-handler transmission in the past three years. In 1998, the number of reported cases in Michigan was second in the nation only to Arizona.
"Fear," said Prentice, when asked what drove him to institute the vaccination policy, as he explained how a competitor's restaurant was nearly run into the ground when one of its employees contaminated some cole slaw with Hepatitis A last year, sickening dozens and causing the fatality. After that incident, Prentice took measures in his own establishments to increase safety, such as installing new sinks that didn't require physical contact to operate, and signage enforcing employee sanitary measures. But, a former juvenile Hepatitis sufferer himself, he felt it just wasn't enough.
"I just figured that the value of vaccinating a few hundred people is immense if it prevents people from losing their lives, customers or employees," said Prentice.
The overwhelming response from the public and media in the Detroit area has been extremely positive, and some employees are thankful for the vaccination, said Prentice, though some are still a little nervous about the shot itself. Reacting to the level of Hepatitis A reported in the area, Oakland County officials have proposed some heavily discounted vaccination programs for citizens. Prentice said he hopes the success of his new policy will help those proposals pass through local legislation.
"Along with everything else, I realized that spending the 30 grand to vaccinate all these people is cheap compared to folding a $30-million company," he said.