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Every year, roughly 1 in 6 Americans get sick due to foodborne diseases (Source: Centers for Disease Control – CDC). 58% of domestically acquired foodborne illnesses are norovirus outbreaks, according to the CDC. Norovirus is known to cause ~60,000 hospitalizations and ~700 deaths every year, particularly among young children and older people. 

Most of these outbreaks occur in food service settings like restaurants. 75% of norovirus attacks are known to come where food is eaten raw, such as salads (vs. heated foods where some of the virus can be killed). Infected food service workers are frequently the source of the outbreaks. Since half the food workers in the restaurant industry go to work even when they are sick, this is a challenge. This happens because sick days are unpaid, because people spread norovirus before they feel sick, and they can spread it for two weeks after they start getting better. Studies show it takes about 30 seconds of vigorous rubbing using hot water and soap to wash away the tiny bits of virus, and that means getting under the nails, too. How many people have you seen taking that much effort washing their hands in the restroom? Probably none. 

The above is in reference to restaurants where the food service workers make the salad. Now, imagine a situation where a restaurant has a salad bar and 100s of customers use it? One infected person among the 100 people use the salad bar, and tons of people fall sick! This statistic is particularly scary considering not all people wash their hands after using the restroom. As you can see in the figure below, studies indicate 30-50% of people may not wash their hands after using the restroom (when I showed my wife the figure below, her first reaction was “I always knew women were cleaner than men!” :-)). This statistic is gross and dangerous because it can also spread norovirus. That is why salad restaurants, such as sweetgreen, are moving away from the salad bar concept and going to a “worker-makes-salads” model, despite the higher labor cost and long queues it entails. 

How can norovirus impact a restaurant’s financials? The above figure shows Chipotle, one of the restaurant industry’s most loved brands, reported 44% lower income due to a combination of norovirus and E-coli outbreaks last year. 

Now we know: 

  • Norovirus is a serious risk for anyone eating raw food such as salads in a restaurant. 
  • This risk goes up by orders of magnitude in salad bars. This is particularly troubling since many schools have salad bars today to encourage kids to eat healthy, unprocessed food. I want to make sure my daughter doesn’t get sick from eating salads at her school. Maybe this is one reason parents take so much time off to take care of sick kids. Office cafeterias like Google and Yahoo and others pride themselves on providing fresh food with salad bars. One infected person using the salad bar, and wham, 50 Google employees can fall sick. 

How can we resolve this?

I believe robots are a viable solution to this. A robot does not get sick, cough on food or transfer infection to others. At Chowbotics, we have built a robot called Sally the Salad Robot, which makes salads from ingredients in separate cylinders contained within the machine, preventing cross-contamination from the consumer. With time, as we release production parts and ramp up acquisition, we will hopefully reduce instances of norovirus in the food industry quite significantly. 

At Chowbotics, we are excited to ensure that our customers eat healthy, safe food. 

By: Deepak Sekar