Investing In Digital Technology Is Investing in Food Safety

Today’s modern restaurant operators face challenges that no other generation has faced, thanks to COVID-19 closures, supply chain disruptions, labor shortages, menu labeling, and food safety challenges. Food safety is a significant concern since any cross-contamination, cross-contact, mishandling, or foodborne illnesses may sicken guests and become a PR disaster. It is the industry's primary responsibility to be sure the food they sell and serve to consumers is safe. 

The more obstacles the industry faces, the more challenging these responsibilities become. In my experience, when labor issues arise, training and education of the crew are the first things to suffer. There are many reasons for this. Time and money are two of the most significant factors. 

Employee turnover has been higher than ever since the COVID pandemic, with hourly turnover hovering around an unbelievable 194% in the food service industry. It’s impossible to track training for all these employees as they come and go unless you have reliable systems. Pencil, paper, and spreadsheets will not suffice. Accurate, reliable tracking requires digital technology. Without investing in training, it’s not a matter of if, but when, disaster will strike and what the collateral damage will be. It could mean the closure of your business as evidenced by Chi Chi’s, which was once ranked the number one fast-casual Mexican restaurant in the US.

Chi Chi’s had been at the top of its game, being named Mexican restaurant chain of the year by Restaurants and Institutions Magazine three times from 1993 to 1995. In 2003, more than 555 confirmed hepatitis A cases were linked to green onions served at Chi Chi’s. Four people died because of their illness. The hepatitis A outbreak was a debacle for the brand, and they couldn’t recover. Less than a year later, Chi Chi’s closed permanently.

Today, the penalties for foodborne illness outbreaks can mean even more than sickening guests and the closure of your business. Imagine being fined $25 million by the Department of Justice (DOJ). Chipotle was charged with violating federal law by adulterating food for the unprecedented seven foodborne illness outbreaks that occurred and sickened more than 1,100 people between 2015 and 2018. This is the largest fine ever in a food safety case. 

The DOJ has been sending messages loud and clear over the past several years to those in the industry who haven’t taken food safety seriously. For instance, Stewart Parnell, a former executive for Peanut Corp. of America, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the nationwide salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009 that killed nine people and sickened 714. 

ConAgra Foods pleaded guilty to a criminal misdemeanor and paid more than $11 million in fines for a salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter in 2006 and 2007. Former Iowa egg executive Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son, Peter, received prison sentences of several months and were fined $100,000 dollars for their part in a 2010 salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands of people. The family company, Quality Egg, was fined $6.8 million. 

As time has passed, the penalties have become more expensive and stringent. It’s important to note that while there were several outbreaks and numerous illnesses at several Chipotles, there were no reported deaths and no prison time assigned. Chipotle was very responsive to their situation. They implemented new sanitation procedures and new food safety training procedures for all restaurant employees, changed its prepping procedures to avoid potential cross-contamination, began utilizing central kitchens to prepare certain items instead of doing so at individual stores, implemented a new sick leave policy, and announced an automatic closure if an employee or customer vomited in a restaurant. They also invested in digital technology. These are just a few of Chipotle's many efforts to revive its damaged brand image and increase safety in their restaurants. 

Short-staffed, overworked employees cutting corners often leads to food safety issues. The Chipotle employees that were interviewed about these outbreaks said just that. Now, years later, nearly every restaurant in America is short-staffed, and almost every employee is overworked. It’s more important than ever to do your due diligence. Make sure that your team is trained and that you have documentation to prove it. 

Food safety training and education have never been more critical to the food service industry than they are today. Protecting your communities, customers, employees, and brand are critical to success; therefore, investing in the training and education of employees is the wisest investment a food service establishment can make.

Restaurants should leverage a digital software program that can track employee hire dates, active employment dates, regulatory compliance certifications, in-house training certificates, and expiration dates and keep copies of the certificates on file. These systems can save hours of employee labor, keep all the appropriate data in one location, allow uploading data from spreadsheets, lower food costs, increase accuracy, boost safety and compliance, minimize risks, and more. With the FDA’s emphasis on digital technology in the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, these platforms are exactly what you need to improve morale, confidence, food safety culture, and your overall operations. Digital technology is not a fad; it’s a worthwhile investment to keep your employees, guests, and business safer.