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    The Tremendous Cost of Foodborne Illnesses, and What to Do About it

  • The cost of a single foodborne illness outbreak at a fast-casual establishment could cost between $6,330 to $2.1 million.

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    Each year, 48 million Americans become sick from foodborne illness.

    America’s food industry has a $55.5 billion food safety problem. This includes foodborne illnesses at restaurants, hotels, convenience stores, and other food service organizations, as well as food recalls and other food safety issues.

    Clearly, restaurants should be concerned about sickening—or even killing—customers because of a foodborne illness, and should take every precaution to reduce that risk.  But foodborne illnesses are also expensive and damaging for businesses. 

    A foodborne illness incident can cost restaurants significant money—including decreased revenues, hefty legal fees, potential lawsuits, diminished sales (and loyalty) from worried guests, and a damaged reputation that could permanently shut their doors. In fact, foodborne illnesses cost $55.5 billion per year in medical treatment, lost productivity, and illness-related mortality in the U.S, according to a study by Ohio State University professor Robert Scharff.

    The cost of a single foodborne illness outbreak at a fast-casual establishment could cost between $6,330 to $2.1 million, depending on the severity of the outbreak, the amount of lawsuits, fines and legal fees, as well as the number of employees and guests impacted by the incident, according to a new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Casual-dining restaurants had a cost range of $8,030 to $2.2 million, and fine-dining restaurants could experience costs between $8,273 and $2.6 million per incident, according to the study.

    "Our study shows that a single foodborne illness outbreak can incur substantial costs, enough to compose a large portion of a restaurant's annual profits," the team wrote in the study. "Many of these costs outweigh the costs of various infection prevention and control measures that are available to restaurants."

    Each year, 48 million Americans become sick from foodborne illness, per the Centers for Disease Control. Reducing foodborne illness by just 1 percent would keep approximately 500,000 people from getting sick each year in the US. Reducing foodborne illness by 10 percent would prevent five million from getting sick.

    Investing in food safety is one of the smartest things that restaurants (and other food service organizations) can do. The expense, time and energy necessary to implement—or elevate—your food safety protocols won’t be overwhelming, and it’s crucial to your business success.

    Reduce safety risks—and the tremendous costs associated with foodborne illness incidents and outbreaks—by taking the following steps:

    Make food safety part of your company’s culture. Everyone—on every shift—must be trained in proper food safety protocols.

    Invest in the latest technologies. Digital tools are elevating the way many restaurants do business.  Not only do these technological tools make food safer, but they can also save restaurants tremendous money each year by preventing food waste and reducing foodborne illness risks. 

    Ditch the paper. Technological solutions enhance food safety protocols and make it faster, more accurate, and more efficient to conduct inventory, auditing, training and keep food safe. Restaurants that adopt and embrace digital tools (versus using pen and paper systems) can help boost the health and safety of their establishments.

    Reduce human error. While human error can never be completely eliminated, advancements in technology help minimize the risks. Sensors ensure foods are being held at proper temperatures. Centralized, continuous refrigeration monitoring systems signal when temperatures in restaurants’ coolers or freezers rise above safe holding temperatures, eliminating the need to throw away entire coolers or freezers of food due to improperly working units.  As a result, restaurants can save thousands of dollars (or more) in lost product and potentially save lives.

    Elevate your data collection. Innovative digital tools can now be used for restaurants’ internal auditing systems, which is a more efficient, cost-effective and accurate solution versus the pen and paper methods that are often used in the food service industry. Using pen and paper to audit restaurants often result in increased labor, time, errors and expenses. Hard copy records can be difficult to organize and access—especially in the midst of a frightening food safety outbreak—and it’s extremely difficult to integrate and analyze the data. Digital tools provide more efficient, cost-effective internal auditing systems, with records that are easy to access and analyze. 

    Become mobile. A major percentage of restaurant employees are millennials (or younger), and they live on their phones. If you’re trying to emphasize the importance of food safety protocols but then provide employees with antiquated pencil and paper record-keeping systems, there’s a tremendous disconnect. Instead, implement digital systems that can be tracked on cell phones and tablets. Use downloadable apps to enhance the way employees conduct inspections, keep temperature logs, conduct training, manage QA forms, access food code information, and more.  This way, critical food safety information can (literally) be at employees’ fingertips.

    Improve operational efficiencies. By doing so, you’ll improve your restaurant’s bottom line. Eliminating pen and paper line checks can save $250-600 per year per restaurant, smart sensors that prevent food spoilage can save $1,100 per episode, and reducing food and labor costs can save $4,700 per year per restaurant, according to a recent CoInspect survey. Digital tools can help with brand protection and quality assurance concerns by optimizing and improving line checks, shift logs, inspections, auditing, and other reporting.

    Reduce pencil whipping. There’s a widespread “pencil whipping” problem in the food service industry, where employees using paper record systems falsify records or “cheat” on their processes. As much as food service leadership wants to deny that “pencil whipping” happens in their organizations, it’s (unfortunately) a fairly common practice in restaurants, hotels, convenience stores, and other industry businesses. Pencil whipping can result in increased food safety risks, food code violations and other (potentially costly) issues. Digital tools help reduce or eliminate “pencil whipping” through real-time data collection, and visual records using photos and videos. 

    While technology has previously been considered to be a luxury, today, digital tools are affordable, widespread and accessible. Technology that can help minimize labor, reduce (or eliminate) foodborne illness risks, and minimize food waste is not an expense, it’s an important investment. Innovative digital systems and records are fundamental to keeping foods, consumers and restaurants healthy and safe.

    Restaurants must prioritize food safety, utilizing the most efficient and effective tools to protect the health of their guests, employees and businesses. Technology streamlines operations, improves safety protocols, reduces errors, integrates data—and so much more, and the benefits are significant. When restaurant owners tell me, “I can’t afford the investment,” my response is always, “You can’t afford not to.”

    Francine L. Shaw is the president of Savvy Food Safety, Inc. which offers a robust roster of services, including consulting, food safety education, food safety inspections, crisis management training, writing norovirus policies for employees, writing norovirus clean-up procedures, curriculum development, responsible alcohol service training, and more. The Savvy Food Safety team has more than 100 combined years of industry experience in restaurants, casinos, and convenience stores and has helped numerous clients prevent foodborne illnesses. Francine has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the Dr. Oz Show, the Huffington Post, iHeartRadio, Food Safety News, Food Management Magazine and Food Service Consultants Society International.