In September, more than 130,000 pounds of ground beef were recalled, due to E.coli contamination. Several months earlier, there was a widespread investigation around romaine lettuce because of E. coli concerns as well. Over the summer, tainted produce was sold and served at Panera Bread, McDonald’s, and grocery stores. Let’s be clear: these incidents were massive, across multiple states. They sickened hundreds and, in the case of the romaine outbreak, even killed people that consumed the food.
Foodborne illness incidents and outbreaks can be caused by multiple factors. In some cases, food is contaminated where it grows. Sometimes, it’s contaminated during the transportation process. Human error contributes to many foodborne illness outbreaks. For instance, cross-contamination (such as prepping raw poultry and ready-to-eat foods on the same cutting board) can transfer harmful bacteria from the raw proteins to the ready-to-eat foods. Additionally, when foods are time-temperature abused, often due to human error, bacteria can grow and sicken consumers that eat it.
We know that foodborne illnesses occur with alarming frequency. According to the CDC, there are 76 million foodborne illnesses in the United States each year, with 325,000 requiring hospitalizations, and 5,000 resulting in death. It doesn’t have to be this way. Foodborne illnesses are 100 percent preventable,
The foodservice industry is in denial about the seriousness of this issue, and how widespread the problems have become. While some restaurants and other food businesses pride themselves on following impeccable food safety protocols every day, many do not. All it takes is one employee serving undercooked hamburgers, or handling raw eggs and then prepping a salad, or forgetting to refrigerate a tray of marinating steaks … and a foodborne illness outbreak occurs.
Another huge problem is employees cheating on inspections, which is (sadly) a widespread problem in the foodservice industry. Sometimes, employees are busy (or lazy) and skip the inspections. And they lie and “check the boxes” that say the inspections were completed and all is well. But if they didn’t actually check that the freezer doors were properly closed, the shipment of refrigerated product arrived at the proper temperature, and that food thermometers were available at every station, it elevates the organization’s risks for a foodborne illness outbreak.
As a food safety expert who has spent decades working in the restaurant industry, I’ve seen it all: a commercial kitchen overrun by cockroaches, a chef literally slaughtering a goat in a restaurant kitchen, restaurants storing open containers of bleach next to open containers of food. While those examples are extreme, I see other infractions on a daily basis. Employees don’t wash their hands after handling money, menus or their germy cell phones. They come to work with a contagious stomach virus and contaminate the food they handle. They take shortcuts on a hectic dinner shift, feeling “too busy” to take the internal temperature of the meats they’re cooking, or unwilling to grab a clean board to prep a salad. They falsify their inspections because they don’t want or have time to complete them.
Food safety protocols are only effective if everyone follows them—every day, with every shift. Poor food safety culture, lack of education, poor training, operational consistency, and margin pressures may be at least partially to blame for food safety breaches. Many food corporations’ leaders are busy worrying about rising costs, increasing competition and other big picture issues, as well as the day-to-day logistics of running their businesses. Too often, restaurant employees think they’re invincible. They “blow off” the safety protocols, thinking foodborne illness could never happen at their restaurant, not on their watch. They’re in denial. It only takes one mistake to sicken guests and ruin a restaurant’s reputation.
So, that’s the bad news. The good news is that there are innovative new tools and technologies today that can help prevent (or, at least, reduce) foodborne illnesses. Restaurants and other food businesses need to adopt these new tools to help keep their businesses, foods and guests safer.
There are some big hurdles to overcome to elevate food safety in restaurants and other food businesses. Most companies have had the same food safety plan in place for decades, and want to continue to do what they’ve always done. (“If it ain’t broke, why fix it.”) They resist change, fearing that anything new will be too expensive, time-consuming, overwhelming or burdensome. They resist taking simple (yet valuable) actions to improve and enforce their food safety practices and keep their guests safer.
Some organizations hire third-party inspectors to conduct inspections quarterly, semi-annually, or annually (a wise decision!), others opt to bypass these inspections, usually due to cost factors. (Ironically, the cost of these inspections is far lower than the costs associated with a food safety breach, which the inspections could have prevented.) These inspections are critical to finding potential food safety concerns, and preventing problems from becoming liabilities.
Technology can help reduce or eliminate foodborne illness incidents and outbreaks, yet the industry is fighting the idea of utilizing tech tools. While I recognize that technology is an investment, it will actually save significant money over the long-term. Restaurants using tech tools can often avoid a foodborne illness outbreak, potentially saving millions on legal fees, lawsuits, etc. Technology can also keep foods safer, reducing the amount of spoiled food that needs to be thrown out, which is also a money saver.
After many years in the industry, I understand the ongoing challenges that food businesses face (managing profitability, staying competitive, building and maintaining a brand, etc.). However, I also understand the food safety vulnerabilities, which many within the industry seem to be denying. I have serious concerns about the food service industry’s lackluster attitude around food safety.
Food safety breaches could happen to anyone. I urge all food businesses to elevate their food safety practices. Preventative measures such as hiring third-party inspectors, embracing innovative tech tools, and using digital tools (including photo and video logs) to prevent employees from cheating on inspections are all critically important. Always remember that you’re one undercooked burger or tainted salad away from a food safety crisis—so do everything in your power to prevent that from happening.