Today’s consumers are seeking fresher, healthier food, focusing more on salads and other produce versus more processed, high-fat convenience foods. As Americans demand healthier products, restaurants and other food businesses are responding with fresher ingredients. And this is a big reason that we’ve seen a huge uptick in foodborne illnesses lately. It’s a great irony that produce and other fresh foods are healthier for consumers to eat, but they inherently carry more food safety risk.
Multiple restaurant chains and retailers have had foodborne illness outbreaks this spring and summer, and the issues have (repeatedly) been caused by tainted produce. For instance, romaine lettuce tainted with E. coli was shipped, served and sold nationwide, and consumers across many states got sick from eating it.
As people are eating healthier, fresher foods, they’re getting food poisoning more frequently. This is evident from the numerous foodborne illness outbreaks at major restaurant chains (including Chipotle, Panera, and McDonald’s) over the past few months. In addition to the food safety issues at these restaurant chains, there have also been massive, widespread, multi-state contamination (and subsequent recalls) around fresh foods (including lettuce and pre-cut produce) sold at grocery stores and other retailers.
Call it the “Chipotle Factor,” as Chipotle is emblematic of the problem. The restaurant chain is committed to working with fresher food, which means they inherently face more foodborne illness risks. Their business relies heavily on ready-to-eat items (e.g., fresh salsas, lettuce, avocados, etc.), which aren’t cooked, so there’s no “kill step” where heat could destroy harmful bacteria. As a result, these ready-to-eat foods are more likely to contain bacteria like E.coli, which could sicken guests or even kill them, as we’ve seen again and again.
Chipotle is now as well-known for its repeated foodborne illness outbreaks as it is for its dedication to serving fresh foods. And because fresh produce is such a big part of their business model, food poisonings at the beleaguered burrito chain will keep happening—unless they make major changes (more on that momentarily).
Compounding the problem, the fresh produce served at Chipotle and countless other restaurants nationwide has multiple stops along the supply chain, which means more opportunities for contamination. Bottom line: consumers who eat fresh, ready-to-eat foods face a higher foodborne illness risk than they’d have eating burgers and fries.
It’s apparent that the food industry is evolving, moving towards more healthy, fresh, non-processed foods. Compare this to 10, 20 or 30 years ago, when our nation was obsessed with fast food. The fast food movement was based on 20th century ideas, prioritizing quick, inexpensive, convenient, consistent foods. Customers were more interested in fast foods’ low prices, accessibility and speed, and less concerned about taste and nutrition. Popular foods were often fried, high-fat, and processed, but consumers ate their burgers and fries, unconcerned with the low nutritional value of their meals. Our society became obese eating this way.
Today, customers demand fresher, healthier foods—a diet rich in ready-to-eat produce. Restaurants are changing their menus to give consumers what they want: more salads, more produce, fresher options. Even fast-food and fast-casual restaurants known for their double-bacon cheeseburgers are now in the salad game. And with this shift in sensibilities comes a higher risk factor.
As menus revolve around fresher ingredients, restaurants must be concerned about food safety protocols in their kitchens (not cross-contaminating, cooking to proper temps, keeping equipment sanitized), and also with the safety of their supply chain (where is produce coming from, how has it been stored, has it been held at proper temperatures, etc.) A restaurant can have the cleanest kitchen in the world and follow food safety procedures precisely, but if they receive a shipment of romaine lettuce tainted with E.coli, they could sicken (or even kill) their customers with the salads they serve.
As a nervous nation wants to eat salads—and also fears the repercussions of doing so—food service professionals must remain on high-alert, working to reduce the foodborne illness risks around all foods—including at-risk fresh items. Food businesses must work diligently, collaboratively and consistently to protect the safety of our foods, and should take the following steps to do so:
- Embrace tech solutions. Human error is inevitable, even in the most careful kitchens. A staff member may forget to close the walk-in-cooler door, or inadvertently hold foods at improper temps. The newest tech tools—such as sensors—are highly effective in keeping foods safer by recognizing events (i.e., cooler door open) that could cause food safety breaches. And since fresher foods are vulnerable during every stop on the supply chain, food manufactures should re-examine their systems, using automated options and technology to reduce food safety issues from farm to fork.
- Ditch the paper. In today’s high-tech world, it’s astounding that most food businesses still use antiquated paper and pencil systems to manage food safety standards, including inspections, audits and training. While that’s the way most restaurants have operated for decades, it’s actually a dangerous practice. Paper records make it easy for employees to cheat and falsify records, which puts foods, consumers and businesses at higher risk for food safety breaches. Many restaurant owners fear change and insist on doing things the way they’ve always done them: with clipboards, pen and paper. But transitioning to tech tools will boost the safety factor tremendously. Current tech solutions are affordable, attainable and easy to use, and shifting to a digital system won’t be overwhelming or intimidating, as many believe. The first step could be as simple as providing digital safety checklists and/or food safety training reminders on employees’ smartphones.
- Use data to drive decisions. The other challenge with paper records is that it makes it difficult—even impossible—to collect, integrate and analyze data that’s critical to food safety efforts. Paper safety checks are often done haphazardly—if they’re even done at all. It’s actually quite common for employees to falsify or even skip the safety checks altogether, because they’re busy or just uninterested in completing the task. Once they check the boxes, their bosses won’t know that they skipped the safety inspection—literally putting lives at risk. But what if restaurants held employees more accountable? What if they required time-stamped photos or video proof that safety checks were completed? What if they provided short, digital checklists that weren’t cumbersome, so employees could complete them—even on a busy shift? And what if restaurants (and other food businesses) collected, integrated and analyzed safety data on a regular—and more accurate—basis? Then, they could make smarter decisions. They could also spot—and solve—potential problems before they become liabilities.
- Change their food safety mindset. Many food businesses use a “top-down approach”, where leadership dictates the need for food safety, then hopes their employees follow the protocols. A “knowledge approach” would lead to better, more consistent outcomes, and is as simple as a mindset and culture shift. Leaders should make food safety part of their company culture—communicating and demonstrating that food safety is a non-negotiable priority. In this model, leaders prioritize food safety training, demonstrate its importance, and explain the reasoning behind the protocols to maximize compliance. By shifting both mindset and approach, restaurants will boost their food safety protocols and have better outcomes.
Restaurants must take food safety seriously—every employee, every day, on every shift. This is more important than ever, as we serve up vulnerable fresh foods. As the food industry evolves to focus on fresher foods, all foodservice professionals must evolve accordingly, using every tool at our disposal to keep our foods, guests and businesses safer and healthier.