By Francine L. Shaw

Food Safety and Denial: a Huge Problem within the Food Service Industry

Francine L. Shaw, President
Savvy Food Safety, Inc.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently issued a food safety alert, warning consumers not to eat romaine lettuce due to another E.coli outbreak.  This fall’s outbreak does not appear to be linked to the romaine outbreak last spring, which impacted lettuce grown in Yuma, AZ.

In November, nearly 100,000 pounds of ground beef and more than 91,000 pounds of ground turkey were recalled, because of E. coli and salmonella contamination concerns, respectively.

Compromised produce was served at Panera and McDonald’s. Chipotle experienced a time-temperature abuse issue, which sickened their guests at an Ohio location. Hawaii-based restaurant Teddy’s Bigger Burgers temporarily shut down after employees posted a social media video of the kitchen staff grilling a rat.

Foodborne illness outbreaks are happening with alarming frequency.  And many within the food industry are in denial about the seriousness of this issue, how widespread the problems have become, and how employee errors may be contributing to food safety breaches.

Foodborne illness incidents can be caused by numerous factors.  There could be problems at the farms where foods are grown.   Such was the case around the Yuma, AZ romaine outbreak, where a dirty irrigation system contaminated the lettuce.

Foods can become contaminated during the transportation process.  If foods were held at improper temperatures – such as being transported on a truck that’s not properly refrigerated – they become unsafe to eat.  A delivery could be stored incorrectly – if a driver leaves cold products outside a restaurant on a hot day, harmful bacteria can grow and, as a result, these foods become unsafe to sell, serve and eat.

One of the biggest contributors to foodborne illness outbreaks is human error.  Often, these errors are unintentional.  An employee forgets to take the internal temperature of the meats he’s cooking and inadvertently serves undercooked (potentially harmful) steaks to guests.   Or they place packages of raw poultry on a high shelf in the walk-in cooler, and raw juices drip on (and contaminate) the ready-to-eat foods below.  Or they leave a delivery of refrigerated products out in the hot sun for hours, making them unsafe and unusable.

Sometimes, the human errors are due to laziness.  An employee doesn’t want to cross the kitchen to the handwashing sink, so he preps meals with dirty hands.  Or he uses single-use gloves incorrectly, not replacing them after cracking raw eggs, then contaminates other foods and surfaces with his dirty gloves.  Or an employee “fakes” her answers on a safety inspection, not actually checking to see if the walk-in cooler doors were properly closed, restrooms were clean, and all equipment was sanitized.  The restaurant’s leadership then (erroneously) assumes that all is well, when that’s not actually the case. If the employee didn’t do the safety checks properly (or at all), it elevates the organization’s risks for a food safety incident.

And sometimes, employees make incredibly poor decisions, which can seriously jeopardize the health of guests (and the fiscal health of your business).  Case in point: “cooking” a dirty, bacteria-ridden rat on a restaurant’s grill where food is prepared.  When the employees posted the video, it went viral, causing a PR nightmare for the restaurant’s owner.

As a food safety expert, I see food safety infractions happen daily.  Employees don’t wash their hands after handling money, menus or their germy cell phones.  They take shortcuts on a hectic dinner shift, feeling “too busy” to follow proper protocols.  They skip washing their hands.  They come to work when ill.  They falsify inspections because they’re too busy or too lazy to complete them.

Many within the food industry are in denial, and their ambivalence about food safety is making the problems worse.  Perhaps they aren’t meticulous about enforcing food safety protocols.  Or they “forget” to train all employees about food safety procedures.  They don’t create and nurture a food safety culture.  They create an atmosphere where employees think it’s OK to grill a rat and share the video on social media.

This denial can kill guests.  It can create a PR nightmare like Teddy’s Bigger Burgers is facing.  It can cause customers to boycott your establishment, sales to plummet, word-of-mouth to become negative.  It can destroy businesses.

All it takes is one employee serving undercooked chicken, not washing his hands, accepting a shipment of time-temperature abused foods, coming to work when ill, or inadvertently dripping poultry juice onto produce…and a foodborne illness outbreak occurs.

As an industry, we have to overcome some major challenges if we want to make our foods safer.  But compounding the problem: many restaurants resist change.  They insist on using the same (antiquated) protocols they’ve had in place for decades.  They resist using the latest tech tools because they think they’re too complicated, expensive, time-consuming, or burdensome.  They skip ongoing safety training.  Or they look the other way when employees cheat on safety inspections.

Foodborne illnesses are 100% preventable, but only if all employees follow food safety protocols all the time.  One mistake could cause irreparable damage.  Employees might feel “invincible,” certain that food safety breaches could never happen to them.  So they ignore the rules, which substantially increases food safety risks.

Every restaurant can get better at food safety.  They can embrace the latest tools and technologies that are instrumental in preventing (or reducing) foodborne illnesses.  They can increase their training, ensuring that every employee is aware of (and following) your restaurant’s specific food safety protocols.   (Employees need to understand what the rules are – and why they’re in place.  Your team is much more likely to comply with the rules if they understand why they’re important.) Restaurants can (and should) conduct regular safety inspections and make it impossible for employees to cheat (e.g., requiring photo or digital proof).  I also recommend hiring third-party inspectors to conduct regular safety checks. These inspections (conducted by impartial experts) are critical to finding potential food safety concerns, and preventing problems from becoming liabilities.  And, of course, make food safety part of your culture, prioritized at every level of the organization.

Most importantly, don’t think for one moment that your restaurant isn’t at risk for a food safety breach.  Every restaurant is one unlucky incident away from a full-blown crisis.  Do everything in your power to ensure it doesn’t happen to you.

Food Safety and Denial: a Huge Problem within the Food Service IndustryFrancine L. Shaw is President of Savvy Food Safety, Inc. which offers a robust roster of services, including consulting, food safety education, food safety inspections, crisis management training, writing norovirus policies for employees, writing norovirus clean-up procedures, curriculum development, responsible alcohol service training, and more. The Savvy Food Safety team has more than 100 combined years of industry experience in restaurants, casinos, and convenience stores and has helped numerous clients prevent foodborne illnesses. Francine is a well-respected international speaker, and has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the Dr. Oz Show, the Huffington Post, iHeartRadio, Food Safety News, Food Management Magazine and Food Service Consultants Society International.