Shots all around at L.A.’s restaurants?

Helen Palmer Mar 7, 2007

Shots all around at L.A.’s restaurants?

Helen Palmer Mar 7, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: You know those signs in restaurant bathrooms that say employees have to wash their hands before returning to work? One, you’d hope they’d do that anyway. And two, that might not be enough anymore. At least in Los Angeles. Food service workers here could be facing mandatory Hepatitis A vaccinations.

County supervisors have voted to see how much that might cost following news that a cook working for Wolfgang Puck’s catering company was infected. There are something like 25,000 places to eat in this city. And maybe a hundred thousand people working in them. So the vaccines would be a pretty tall order. And Helen Palmer reports from the Marketplace Health desk at WGBH, it might not even be worth it.

HELEN PALMER: The man in the hot seat to decide what to do is Jonathan Fielding. He’s Los Angeles county public health director, and he says there are a lot of worried Angelenos.

JONATHAN FIELDING: People were calling the restaurants. Some were cancelling bookings — they were worried about the pre-packaged food that has Wolfgang Puck’s name on it.

Fielding stresses nobody’s become sick yet. But there’s a good case for vaccinating food workers if the economics can be worked out.

FIELDING: And that’s one of the issues we’re going to look at, both overall cost and who would pay. It’s probably around $25 for Hep A inoculation.

In Las Vegas, food service workers must have health cards, certifying they’re vaccinated against Hepatitis A. The cards cost $40.

An outbreak could be costly — protective shots for people exposed cost up to $50 each.

Bill Marler, a lawyer who represents food poisoning victims, remembers what happened in 2003 in Pennsylvania.

BILL MARLER: In the ChiChis hepatitis case, that was 10,000 people that got that shot. That restaurant, because of the Hepatitis A outbreak, went bankrupt.

So it could be worth it for restaurants to pay up for vaccination, says Bob Goldin. He’s a restaurant analyst with Technomic.

BOB GOLDIN: I think this is an investment not a cost. You’re buying an insurance policy.

Still, Goldin points out restaurants prefer to self-regulate, and oppose extra spending on workers who change jobs frequently.

Meanwhile, a CDC report from 2001 concluded that “vaccinating restaurant employees is unlikely to be economical from either the restaurant owner or the societal perspective.”

In Boston, I’m Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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