6 ways to avoid food-safety problems

6 ways to avoid food-safety problems

By Aaron Cohen, co-founder, CoInspect

Nearly 300 people have gotten ill this summer after eating at a McDonald's in Brevard, North Carolina, in what authorities believe is a case of norovirus passed through human contact.  This is different from the other recent widespread foodborne illness outbreak at McDonald's, where an additional 400 people — across 16 states — got sick after eating the fast food chain's salads, which were unknowingly tainted with the Cyclospora parasite. 

Around the same time, Chipotle Mexican Grill faced yet another foodborne illness crisis, when nearly 700 people who dined at an Ohio-based Chipotle became ill. That restaurant location temporarily shut its doors to thoroughly clean the facility amid the surrounding investigation.  

Also this summer, a filthyPopeye's restaurant was closed by the Detroit Department of Health. The restaurant was found to have mold in the kitchen, cockroaches and worms crawling around the floors, and unsanitary conditions in their kitchen, bathrooms, and dining area.

Three large, well-known restaurant chains have all faced serious foodborne illness incidents or outbreaks over the span of a week or two.  Then, of course, we've had romaine lettuce contaminated with E.coli that had been shipped, sold and served nationally.  Nearly 200 people became very sick —  and several died — after eating it. Tainted pre-cut fruit, contaminated wraps — it seems like foodborne illness is everywhere.

As reports continue about McSicknesses, another foodborne illness outbreak from a beleaguered burrito chain, and millions of consumers afraid to eat a salad, it's clear that the current food safety process is broken, and needs to be fixed.

There's a growing culture of neglect in the food industry, and we — as an industry — need to find effective solutions that are also affordable, attainable and user-friendly.  

To shift from a culture of neglect to one of food safety, food professionals should:

1. Vary the Work
Most restaurants and other food businesses ask their employees to fill out long checklists with identical questions the same way, day after day.  And their bored employees eventually just stop doing it.  Face it: long, laborious checklists are boring, tedious and time-consuming.  And when employees have numerous other things to do during any given shift, sometimes they simply skip the checklist.  Therefore, it's important to stop making the work so tedious.  In the same way that people shouldn't do the same physical workout each day, companies should switch up what they're asking of employees.  

2. Offer better checklists.  
Want an easy fix to long, laborious paper checklists and employees who won't complete them?  Switch to short digital checklists that can rotate and randomize daily safety inspections, keeping employees more engaged and willing to complete the task. These checklists can be as short as a few (targeted, strategic) questions that take employees just a few minutes to complete.  When the task is made easier (and shorter), employees are more likely to comply.

3. Boost accountability through photos/video
Pencil whipping — or cheating on inspections, audits and other important food safety protocols — is prevalent in the food business.  As much as we'd like to believe otherwise, many food service employees take shortcuts that put our foods and customers at risk.  A big factor in pencil whipping is the monotony of the tasks. Many workers simply don't want to go through the same lengthy, repetitive processes day after day.  Paper and pencil safety checks — which are also the industry norm — make it easy for employees to cheat. Team members can say they checked to make sure all equipment was cleaned, foods were held at proper temperatures, and other safety checks were completed during a specific shift.  But there's no accountability or system to ensure the inspections were done accurately or at all.  Photographic "proof" of inspections — as simple as snapping photos or video on a smartphone or tablet — can help eliminate this dangerous "pencil whipping" practice.

4. Conduct more frequent inspections.  Many restaurants have very infrequent third-party inspections — in some cases — just one to four times per year. In between inspections, some restaurants simply don't worry about meeting safety and cleanliness codes. The Popeye's in Detroit is a perfect example of that. It's wise to invest in third-party inspections more frequently and definitely more than once or twice per year.  Regular checks from an objective expert can help ensure that a facility is operating safely. Equally important, an outside auditor can spot potential problems before they become true liabilities.  While some food companies may balk at the expense, an investment in food safety is critical.  

And just ask Chipotle — inspections are far less expensive than managing a foodborne illness outbreak. Chipotle's profits have taken a huge tumble since their first foodborne illness outbreak in 2015, and they haven't recovered.  Between legal fees/lawsuits, loss of revenue, plummeting stock prices, closed restaurants and more, Chipotle has taken a major financial hit as a result of their multiple, ongoing foodborne illness issues. More frequent third-party inspections combined with elevated self-inspections will go far in keeping food businesses cleaner, healthier and safer.

5. Embrace technology.  Other industries rely on technological innovations to elevate the way they operate, yet food businesses lag behind. Even in the high-tech world we live in, 90% of food businesses still use antiquated paper and pencil systems to manage food safety standards, including inspections, audits and training.  Compounding the problem: humans make errors that can compromise food safety.  Utilizing tech solutions helps various safety checks get done accurately and regularly every day, during every shift. Adding tech tools is a good way to ensure that even "tedious" tasks are done correctly: foods are stored properly, temperatures are checked, refrigerator doors are sealed, etc.    

6. Practice what you preach.  It's not enough to just say you're committed to food safety protocols — it has to be engrained in the company culture.  For example, Chipotle pays employees to stay home if they have the flu or a stomach virus, which is commendable and can theoretically reduce the incidents of norovirus and other issues. But if the organization's management doesn't respect that rule, it becomes technically but not culturally true. And then you get what recently happened in the Ohio Chipotle, where 700 guests became sick after eating at the restaurant.  (Initial reports said that several Chipotle employees were ill during that timeframe, so there may be a connection.) While it's important for the members of the C-suite to promote the importance of food safety, that alone is not enough. That missive has to permeate every level of a food business, and every employee — during every shift — must work to keep the facility, foods, and guests healthy and safe.

The only true food safety culture is a daily food safety culture. As restaurants shift to fresher, more fragile ingredients, food safety must always be top-of-mind. Adopting a culture of food safety doesn't need to be overwhelming, expensive or difficult to implement. There are actionable, manageable steps that food businesses can (and should!) take to move the needle from a culture of neglect to one of food safety.

Aaron Cohen co-founded CoInspect, a  software company that powers food safety, quality assurance, and standards management for restaurants and food manufacturers.

Topics: Food Safety

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