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    When Fresh Falls Short

  • A rash of food-borne illness outbreaks have operators rethinking food safety.

    Chipotle is recovering from a food-safety crisis that is all too familiar for other brands.

    It’s been a busy few months for Sloan’s Ice Cream. The West Palm Beach, Florida–based brand is planning to ramp up growth, which means it needs a larger manufacturing facility to support increased volume.

    But bringing this new building online is a more delicate process than simply shipping equipment and ingredients. In fact, David Wild, director of franchising for the eight-unit brand, emphasizes that it is taking great care to ensure that the new facility is clean and up to the best food-safety standards. After all, it’s not hard to bring to mind cautionary tales from the least year alone.

    In November, 42 Chipotle locations in the Pacific Northwest were temporarily closed following an outbreak of E. coli. The incident came on the heels of smaller Chipotle-based outbreaks in California and Minnesota. And before the fast-casual leader could regain its footing, another crisis struck—this one across the country, in Boston. Nearly 100 customers fell sick with norovirus, leading founder and CEO Steve Ells to make a very uncomfortable appearance on the “Today Show,” where he expressed sympathy for those who had fallen ill and then attempted to explain how Chipotle would change its policies to prevent further repeats.

    Even worse, consumer-packaged good (CPG) ice cream company Blue Bell sold listeria-tainted product, resulting in 10 illnesses and three deaths.

    “Food safety is one of the only things that can bring a big company to its knees very quickly,” Wild says. “If you have an E. coli breakout and your name is associated with that, it can crush you.”

    While no company wishes to face a food-safety crisis, such circumstances do offer operators a reminder that it pays to be proactive with food safety, and that no safety issue is too small for a quick and comprehensive response.

    Take, for example, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. Like Blue Bell, the Columbus, Ohio–based ice cream shop and CPG brand faced a listeria scare in 2015. But in sharp contrast to Blue Bell, which was reportedly aware of a contamination risk and now faces criminal charges, Jeni’s acted swiftly and openly—twice.

    Shortly after a contaminated pint was discovered in Nebraska, Jeni’s recalled all of its products, closed its production facility, and instructed customers to either return or dispose of their products. It also brought in a team of 10 scientists to inspect the ice cream and the facilities. Beyond that, the company created a page on its website with updates on the situation and brought in top employees from the shops and kitchen to man a 24-hour crisis communication center.

    “When the crisis hit, it was easy for us to decide; we’ve got to tell people what we know when we know it,” says CEO John Lowe. “We huddled up our leadership team and quickly rattled through the things we needed to do.”

    He says the company also benefited from the example set by Amy’s Kitchen; just a month before Jeni’s temporary shutdown, the organic frozen-food company had to do the same after it received listeria-contaminated spinach.

    But Jeni’s nimble reaction should also be credited to Lowe, who had started his career as a lawyer before becoming an executive at General Electric, where he received “some amazing crisis management training.”

    It might seem that foodservice operators and CPG companies should just resign themselves to an eventual food-safety issue in light of recent events, but experts say not so fast: Most contaminations can be prevented, and in the case those measures fail, quick action, as in the case of Jeni’s, can keep tainted products off the market.

    Shaking up the supply chain

    As consumer preference for produce-filled, fresh meals grows, so too, do certain risks.

    “It’s true that when produce is consumed raw, there’s no kill step prior to consumption,” says Francine Shaw, president of Food Safety Training Solutions, which works with businesses ranging from restaurants and hotels to schools and medical facilities. “Management of food-borne pathogens is still possible. If it weren’t, they wouldn’t be using fresh produce; nobody would.”

    Consumers might perceive foods that are labeled “organic” or “local” as being less risky, but Shaw says it is simply not the case. For contaminants like E. coli and salmonella, it doesn’t matter whether the foods are organic or even local since all produce is grown “in, on, or near the dirt,” she says.

    While such labels do not improve food safety, the demand for specialty foods has shaken up the supply chain. Wade Winters, vice president of supply chain at purchasing partner Consolidated Concepts, previously worked at fast casual Au Bon Pain. He says consumers’—particularly Millennials’— expectations are so different than years past that it has thrown a curveball at the restaurants and suppliers trying to satisfy them.

    “It tends to disrupt some of the processes that were in place and how things have been done in the supply chain for so many years,” Winters says. Add to that an ever-growing number of restaurants and consumers eating out more frequently, and the challenge grows. “Everything has been amplified. The steps [for food safety] have always been there; it’s just now they’re longer and more abundant.”

    Like Shaw, Winters says extra sanitation procedures and checks along the supply chain and in the restaurant could mitigate the chances of contamination or spoilage. For example, pre-washed produce should still be washed and delivery trucks and coolers should be calibrated to the right temperature. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the restaurant to ensure that the food it is serving is safe. Both Shaw and Winters recommend that operators do their homework to verify the procedures of their third-party partners. By making regular visits to manufacturing facilities, confirming certifications such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP), and asking honest questions about a partner’s history and plan for hypothetical scenarios, restaurants can curtail certain risks.

    Without being cooked or frozen before serving, fresh vegetables and fruits—especially items like salad greens—are more likely to be contaminated. Winters says sprouts went through a popular phase, but because of their elevated risk, they are virtually nonexistent on menus today. But operators aren’t about to remove a whole meal category like salads, he says.

    The proactive approach

    Although Jeni’s listeria episode was not related to produce, Lowe says, the lesson from its experience shouldn’t be an attempt to put the genie back in the bottle.

    “I certainly don’t want the takeaway for anybody in America to be that we should move away from our path of eating less processed food and eating more and more fresh vegetables,” Lowe says.

    And while it might seem that listeria is a dairy-specific contaminant given Jeni’s and Blue Bell’s back-to-back experiences, the bacteria is more often found in raw foods. Produce that has been exposed to tainted soil or water and uncooked meat or unpasteurized milk can carry listeria. The bacteria can also continue to thrive in cold temperatures.

    Jeni’s listeria scare began last April when the Nebraska Department of Agriculture pulled samples from a Whole Foods in Lincoln. Very quickly, the Jeni’s team and its expert advisers found listeria in the pint that began it all (a Dark Chocolate), as well as in a pint of the Buckeye State flavor; the contaminant was ultimately traced back to a single spout in its production kitchen.

    While Jeni’s destroyed all of its ice cream—some 535,000 pounds—its supply partners, including Askinosie Chocolate and Smith Dairy, checked their own facilities and products. No listeria was detected, but on the company’s update page, Lowe commended Jeni’s suppliers for “jumping in” and helping when the crisis struck.

    In May, the company reopened its production kitchen and its retail shops after investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrading the kitchen, such as removing walls, adding cooler space, and putting sanitary crystals around drain pipes. The company also moved the processing of raw fruits and vegetables to a different facility to lower the risk of contamination.

    Despite these physical changes and new procedures, Jeni’s had another brush with listeria just a month after resuming production. “We found listeria had reappeared on the floor at the facility. And it’s then that we made the much more questionable decision to shut down again,” Lowe says. “We could have just cleaned it and gotten back to making ice cream, but that did not feel right, given that we had just spent a fair amount of time and brainpower making sure listeria was gone. We were worried we hadn’t solved it.”

    Another shutdown and investigation revealed that the reappearance was likely due to a water-cooling tower that had been plumbed to drain back into the facility in a trench drain. Because Jeni’s had been testing each batch of ice cream since it reopened in May, consumers were not at risk. Nevertheless, Lowe says, the distinction was lost in the media coverage, which called it another outbreak.

    This second, self-contained appearance of listeria only halted production and closed the shops (which had no supply due to the shutdown) for a little over a week. Since then, Jeni’s has been in the clear.