In 2022, an E. coli outbreak associated with Wendy’s restaurants sickened 109 people in six states. Roughly half of these were hospitalized and 13 went on to develop kidney failure.
Earlier this year, an outbreak at a fast-food sushi restaurant in Montana led to the deaths of at least two people.
Foodborne illness is a real concern in the quick-service restaurant industry. Just because the food isn’t prepared from scratch doesn’t mean the risks aren’t real, and restaurant owners and operators must take steps to protect their restaurants from what can quickly become a public relations nightmare.
A formal food safety program not only protects diners from becoming ill, but it also protects the restaurant from reputational harm and even potential financial crisis. Taking the time to raise awareness around foodborne illness and establishing a formal program helps restaurant owners and operators manage the risks and protect their businesses.
Raise awareness around foodborne illness
Running a quick-service restaurant that’s part of a larger chain comes with great benefits and significant drawbacks. If another location has been hit with an outbreak, diners may assume all locations are unsafe. Employees will need to stay on top of the best practices associated with preventing foodborne illness, including:
- Thorough handwashing. Workers do take shortcuts. They may skip washing hands when time is short and there are few consequences. Yet improving handwashing practices is critical to preventing outbreaks of foodborne illnesses such as norovirus, E. coli and salmonella. Share information about best practices for handwashing and wearing gloves.
- Standards of cleanliness. Offer formal training on cleanliness, including the differences between cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting, and enforce consequences for employees who don’t appropriately clean surfaces.
- Cross-contamination. Separate different areas of the kitchen to keep food safe. Whether it’s separating raw meat from pre-cooked foods or cleaning fluids from edible ingredients, mixing different types of items can be dangerous.
- Regular training. Require all employees to be certified in food safety. Many restaurants can easily access a variety of courses to educate new employees appropriately. In addition, requiring these courses before new employees begin work sends the message that food safety is important.
Establish a formal plan
Most restaurants have something in place to keep their kitchens clean and functional. But it may be haphazard at best, with posted signs taking the place of a complete program.
It’s critical to begin by getting the entire management team on board. Offer safety training for CEOs and shift managers alike to ensure they understand what’s at stake. Once everyone is on board, follow these steps to create or update your food safety program:
1. Assess the risk. Standard food safety programs are general enough to cover everyone, but the best programs are the ones that address specific needs and risks. Review employee behavior in the kitchen and identify any risks and unprofessional behaviors. Be honest about whether there are any existing risk mitigation practices in place – and how employees can improve.
2. Update existing policies. Review any existing policies and update them to meet current regulations. For example, the current Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is designed to prevent foodborne illness rather than simply respond to it; your updated policy should offer the same focus to reflect that shift.
3. Train all staff. A culture of safety requires buy-in across the organization. This means that everyone – from the dishwasher and the manager to the franchise owner – must attend formal training. It can be helpful to offer group training for those in similar roles to ensure a single message is shared. This also allows training to be targeted and practical.
4. Define responsibilities. Some rules (e.g., handwashing) require everyone to participate, while others (e.g., proper storage of ingredients) may belong to a specific person. When responsibilities are clear, so is accountability. Each employee plays a role in creating a safe work environment, and understanding roles pushes all employees to participate in their own way.
5. Conduct regular inspections. The best safeguard against foodborne illness is the implementation of regular safety inspections, which are usually based on a standard food safety checklist. Not only do inspections protect your customers and their guests, but they also protect your business – and they demonstrate to your employees that you are choosing to make safety a focus of your business.
Some restaurant owners and operators aren’t comfortable leaving the risk open. They may want to consider securing insurance coverage to close the gap and protect them from the costs of food recalls, business interruption costs and other related issues. Discuss the issue with an insurance broker or other expert in the quick-service food industry and learn how to protect your diners and your business.
Placito Miceli is a Senior Risk Consultant for the HUB Gulf South Region in HUB’s Risk Services Division. He has over 15 years in claims, safety, training, and risk management. At HUB International, Placito provides a unique perspective in risk management to assist our clients in developing and implementing a holistic program. As the National Hospitality Risk Lead, he helps align the organization’s strategic direction relative to current and emerging risks specific to the hospitality industry. Additionally, he provides expert guidance across the HUB footprint for maritime exposures (longshore and inland marine) and is a member of HUB’s Catastrophic Modeling Team, assisting clients with catastrophic modeling, exposure analysis, and mitigation guidance.