Why Restaurants Must Adopt a Food Safety Culture

A foodborne illness outbreaks can ruin a restaurant.  In addition to the horror of sickening (and even killing) your guests, food poisoning is (obviously) bad for business.  

Case in point:

  • Chipotle has been in the hot seat multiple times since 2015.  The beleaguered burrito chain has faced numerous foodborne illness crises, including norovirus, E.coli issues, and, most recently, an outbreak that sickened 700+ guests in Ohio due to improperly stored foods.  The company has lost millions of dollars in lost business and plummeting stocks, and its reputation has been severely damaged, which is evident from the harsh media coverage, negative comments on social media, decreasing numbers of customers, and loss of consumer trust.
  • McDonald’s recently had two separate food safety issues.  First, nearly 300 people were sickened in what’s believed to be a case of norovirus at a McDonalds in North Carolina.  Secondly, an additional 400 people – across 16 states – became ill after eating McDonald’s salads, which were found to be contaminated with the Cyclospora parasite. 
  • Taco Bell experienced a foodborne illness outbreak in 2006, which affected 71 customersacross five states. Eight people developed kidney failure, and 53 were hospitalized. This outbreak was linked to lettuce tainted with E.coli.
  • Jack in the Box had a massive foodborne illness crisis in 1993 that sickened more than 700 people, hospitalized 170 and killed four.  Some of these consumers experienced chronic health issues after the incident.  The source of the outbreak was confirmed to be E.coli from undercooked burgers.

Every restaurant is just one “careless mistake” away from a foodborne illness incident or outbreak that could sicken (or even kill) guests, ruin your reputation and – in some cases – result in closing your doors permanently.  

Foodborne illnesses sicken 48 million people, hospitalize 5,000, and kill 3,000 in the U.S. annually, according to the CDC.  Given the recent headlines, statistics, and social media fallout around foodborne illness, we can all agree that this has become a widespread, serious problem.  The good news is that it’s a solvableproblem. In fact,foodborne illness incidents are 100 percent preventable and could be avoided if food businesses adopted a food safety culture.  

In my role as a food safety expert at Savvy Food Safety, Inc., I advise restaurants (and other food businesses) to take the following steps to create a food safety culture.

Walk the Walk

Ensure that company leaders demonstrate a commitment to food safety and set a good example for employees to follow. When food safety culture starts with buy-in from leadership, employees understand that food safety is a priority, and are more likely to take it seriously.

Explain Why

It’s not enough to tell employees they need to do specific things in the name of food safety (e.g., not cut raw poultry on the same board as ready-to-eat foods, take the internal temperatures of foods, take food allergies seriously, etc.) Explain whyit’s so important to follow each protocol so they understand the reasoning behind the rules.  Employees are more likely to comply when they understand why the protocols matter.

Provide Ongoing Food Safety Training

Food safety training and education should be an ongoing effort. Train all employees, emphasizing why food safety is a huge priority for your organization. I recommend in-person trainings with a food safety expert – at least initially. Face-to-face interactions can help engage employees, emphasize key points, and create a more memorable learning experience.  Online training is helpful for refreshers and reminders throughout the year.

Avoid Careless Mistakes

Employees should know that even seemingly “minor” mistakes could sicken (or even kill) guests.  Careless mistakes could include: using the same board to prep raw proteins and then chop veggies for a salad, serving a nut-allergic guest pesto made with walnuts, “forgetting” to return cold foods to the refrigerator in a timely manner, and failing to take the temperature of meats as part of the cooking process (an error that caused the massive foodborne illness crisis for Jack in the Box years ago).

Prohibit Employees from Working When Ill 

Norovirus is a highly contagious illness that can be spread easily and quickly.  If employees are vomiting or have diarrhea, they should not work.  No exceptions – even if you’re busy and short-staffed on a hectic Saturday night dinner shift.  Norovirus could sicken your entire staff and your guests, and it can be transmitted on surfaces (doorknobs, menus, sink faucets, etc.) and via food that’s been handled by someone who’s ill.

Conduct Self-Inspections

Have systems in place for regular self-inspections and audits.  Task multiple employees with this important assignment so you’ll have multiple sets of eyes looking for potential problems.  Utilize checklists – I recommend digital checklists – to increase accuracy and compliance.  These self-inspections should cover equipment (ensuring everything is clean and working correctly), facilities (everything is sanitary, no cracks in tiles, no mold or pests, etc.), and staff (everyone is complying with proper food safety protocols).Address and solve potential problems as soon as they’re noticed. 

Hire a Third-Party Food Safety Expert

An objective, third-party expert can see things that your internal team may have missed, and can often spot problems before they become liabilities.  Additionally, they’re informed about the latest food codes, and know what local health departments will look for during their inspections.  It’s wise to have a third-party expert inspect your facilities at regular intervals, provide food safety training, and ensure that all food safety protocols are being properly followed.  

Stock Your Kitchen with the Proper Equipment

Make it easy for your employees to follow the food safety rules.  After all, they can’t check temperatures if they don’t have access to food thermometers.  Designate an allergy-friendly prep area – and provide color-coded food allergy equipment – to safely prepare meals for food-allergic guests.  Provide multiple boards and knives so staff can use some for raw proteins and others for ready-to-eat foods.

Wash Your Hands

Insist on proper and regular handwashing – before every shift, after using the restroom or emptying trash, after touching raw food, money, cellphones, doorknobs, menus, etc.   Ensure there are easily accessible handwashing sinks, plus plenty of soap, hot water and single use towels.

Create a food safety culture and model proper behavior to help prevent or reduce foodborne illness.  Emphasize that food safety protocols are non-negotiable, and must be followed every day, every shift, by every employee.  

Foodborne illnesses are preventable, but it takes hard work, diligence, dedication and commitment to this culture.  As a result of these efforts, you’ll increase the health and safety of your guests, employees, foods and business.