Restaurant operators saw two cases of romaine lettuce outbreaks in 2018. The first, in April, impacted thousands of brands and locations, while the second, in November, had a similar but lesser impact. Now that it seems the dust has settled, questions still remain in the minds of operators.

Food safety concerns are at an all-time high and outbreaks such as the above highlight the importance of how using the right vendors and distributors can help restaurant executives and operators protect themselves, and their brands, from food recalls and outbreaks.

Many years ago, the company Fresh Concepts put a food safety plan in place that tracked where produce items came from, especially for high-risk items. Since then, they have become even more strict in terms of their processes and procedures, including third-party audit information review, outbreak/recall systems, standard operating procedures, food safety manuals, and supplier and distributor approval programs. These processes and procedures should be part of any vendor and distributor food safety plan, regardless of who operators choose to work with.

There are four main reasons why it is so important that restaurant operators work with vendors and distributors—including those with meat and dairy products—that have robust food safety programs. They are:

Public health. Every link of the supply chain has to ensure people don’t get sick. It’s a responsibility shared by growers, coolers, packers, processors, distributors, restaurants, retailers, and their customers. Part of the role vendors and distributors should play is to make sure everyone is safe, and restaurants are part of the supply chain. Every piece has to work together to ensure safe and healthy consumers.

Brand protection. Every restaurant needs to minimize the possibility of being linked to any recalls or outbreaks. After all, how many stories have we read about food safety issues that has led to the demise of an entire chain, or its core operating units? This is important now more than ever as social media, the internet, and other immediate communications methods are featuring predominantly in consumer lifestyles. In today’s modern age, information can circulate quickly before a brand even has time to react and address concerns. It’s imperative now to be as best protected as you can.

Mitigate financial loss. The business and financial implications can reach into the billions when a food recall or outbreak hits. While Chipotle is the most recent example, there are many other stories of brands being deeply impacted by financial loss, not to mention the decline of consumer trust. While concepts can recover, it often is a long and slow process to do so.

Foster traceability. Restaurants that have programs featuring a high-level of traceability can make calculated decisions on whether to destroy, segregate or to keep using certain products. This is because operators will always know for sure whether they are safe for consumption at any given time. They also will know where they came from so if an issue does occur, they can quickly move into action and take a proactive approach.

If you’re looking to use or work with a produce management company, here are a few questions to ask to ensure your brand and customers are protected:

  • Is there a formalized process in place should a food recall or outbreak occur? This is an important question and most companies should say yes to this question. However, dig a little deeper. Find out exactly what that process covers, how you will be notified if something happens and how they will help you moving forward if it does. (i.e. will they have a backup supply for you or other partners that can offer the same product?).
  • When there is a new supplier, is there a certification process in place for local or small growers? With increased demand for local and/or small growers, an increase in food recalls or outbreak is likely to occur. This is because Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules include exemptions and modified requirements for small businesses; but there are many who voluntarily go through a third-party certification process in order to fully comply with these standards. Ask your produce management firm if they have a food safety system in place for small growers, and how often certifications get reviewed and renewed. This is important for both large and small suppliers of produce and other high-risk items.
  • Is there a second- or third-party audit system in place that distributors and shippers must adhere to? These audit systems are designed to ensure that safety processes and procedures are being followed at all times, especially if regulatory changes occur. Audits should be conducted on a regular basis (usually every year), and it is imperative that restaurant executives know that these occur with the appropriate frequencies.
  • If a recall or outbreak occurs, what steps will your vendor take to ensure your brand is protected and provide available substitutes? The important thing to remember here is that knowledge is peace of mind. This can come if you are aware of the steps that will be taken should an outbreak occur. Your brand will be protected as will the health and wellness of your customers. 

If these questions are answered in the positive, know that your agreements can move forward based on transparency, and supplier, brand and consumer protection. Trust that by having the right kind of vendor and distributor partnerships, restaurant operators should be able to mitigate their risks in the wake of almost any food safety crisis.

Javier Martinez, M.Sc., is the food safety manager at Fresh Concepts.
Food Safety, Outside Insights, Story