Food Safety | June 2012 | By Carolyn Surh

The Evolution of Food Safety

Increasing use of raw produce has quick-service operators paying closer attention to their food safety efforts.

An FDA consumer safety officer works at the border crossing testing food safety.
An FDA consumer safety officer working at the border crossing prepares tomato samples for testing by the FDA mobile laboratory unit. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration
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Quick-service restaurants have an obligation to their customers to provide safe food no matter which challenges may arise on a daily basis. Staff shortages, supply deliveries gone haywire, and increases in food costs all place pressures on foodservice operations, but few in the industry would argue that the importance of food safety trumps any other aspect of a restaurant’s business.

Providing safe food free of illness-causing contaminants is a continual challenge for operators, and technological evolution has not necessarily eased the burden. In a social media–driven age, just one small misstep can be broadcast to thousands of people in seconds. Combined with changing customer preferences, sweeping governmental legislation, and even good, old-fashioned biology, running a successful restaurant has become a balancing act on an ever-evolving landscape. To stay on top of their business, operators must continue to innovate, stay informed, and test and re-test their safety protocols.

While the latest estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal a decrease in the number of Americans sickened each year from food poisoning over the past decade, the agency clearly stipulates that the decrease comes from improved survey methodologies and more accurate data, not from a decline in illnesses. The newest numbers, released in December 2010, show that one in six Americans will fall ill from food poisoning each year, compared with previous estimates that purported food-borne illness struck one in four Americans annually.

As a result, cost-impact statistics have been trimmed, too. Revised estimates now approximate that food-borne illness costs the U.S. $77.7 billion related to medical bills, loss of productivity, pain and suffering, and mortality. Previous estimates based on the older CDC data pinpointed the overall financial burden to be closer to $152 billion annually.

No matter the cost, no restaurant can afford to sicken its customers. Despite recent technological advances in areas such as pathogen testing, keeping food safe hasn’t gotten any easier. In fact, in the wake of America’s movement toward a healthier diet and lifestyle, the waters may have just gotten a bit rougher.

“In recent years, a significant trend is that more and more food-borne outbreaks are caused by produce,” says Sangwei Lu, associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of California at Berkeley. “Ten years ago, most outbreaks were caused by ground beef, chicken, things like that. In recent years, outbreaks have been caused by spinach, tomato, [and] peppers.”

Fresh produce has become more of a focal point in foodservice as nutrition has been put under a microscope. Various elements have led the shift toward better nutrition, from first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-childhood obesity “Let’s Move!” campaign emphasizing nutritious meals in schools to the new USDA Food Plate, which relegates half of a visual plate to be filled with vegetables and fruit. In addition, America’s soaring obesity rates and subsequent health concerns are a regular topic in the media.

In response, many quick-service restaurants are expanding lighter menu offerings, which include salads, raw produce–topped entrees, and juices. Locally sourced produce was the second most popular trend predicted for 2012 in the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) recent “What’s Hot” survey and has been at the head of the list for the past several years. In comparison, results from the same NRA survey showed that chicken wings and comfort foods like macaroni and cheese were the most popular menu items on America’s restaurant tables a decade ago.

FDA mobile lab analysts prepare to test produce crossing the border for salmonella and E. coli. Mobile laboratories help the FDA quickly test food and drugs for contaminants.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Also ranked highly were nutritionally sound meals for children, a consumer movement that is increasingly echoed on quick-service restaurant menus in the form of apple slices, vegetable sticks, fruit salads, and juices.

In a 2010 study by the National Fruit and Vegetable Alliance focusing on children’s produce consumption, children under the age of 12 have increased their fruit consumption by at least 7 percent in the past five years. Of all age segments, children are the most likely to consume the recommended number of fruit and vegetable servings per day.

Along with all of this focus on fresh produce are food-safety threats related to raw foods. Experts say food-borne micro-organisms on produce served raw may be even more difficult to manage than prior culprits—raw ground beef and poultry—as there is no potential to cook them away.

“I’d say it’s more than 99 percent safe,” Lu says of cooked foods. “With meat, people always cook it. However, with salad greens, people don’t cook it to begin with, so if pathogen contamination happens in any place along the chain, then people are going to get sick.”

Food safety consultant David Theno, known to many in the quick-service world as a key figure in Jack in the Box’s brand recovery from a 1993 E. coli outbreak, says the move toward healthier menu offerings has made the food safety landscape more challenging.

“There’s clearly been a move to fresher, lighter,” Theno says. “[There are] a lot more offerings where produce is involved, a lot more soups. Some of these foods are more difficult to serve in a safe manner. They require different levels of control. If you’re serving soups or cooking and holding and running all kinds of produce, that puts more pressure on the system overall.”

An increased focus on raw produce safety has changed the way restaurants handle certain foods. For instance, the FDA now considers raw cut tomatoes a potentially hazardous food, in the same category as meats, seafood, eggs, and poultry.

For operations serving raw produce, well-known safety precautions such as storing or holding foods at appropriate temperatures, maintaining good personal hygiene, and avoiding cross-contamination are especially important. Even more vital, experts say, is sourcing a safe food supply chain.

Next: Tracking down the contamination source.