The War on Foodborne Illness: Why Restaurants Need to Join the Fight

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Headlines about another restaurant involved in an outbreak are almost a daily occurrence now. Many major restaurant chains have had at least one outbreak. Foodborne illness from restaurants in this country is reaching new heights. It begs the question, Why? In my experience working with the restaurant industry as a regulator, I come across some resistance from operators who are naïve about their chances of contributing to an outbreak. They simply don’t think it will ever happen to them.

Many people took notice of the impact of foodborne illness when headlines reported on the Jack in the Box outbreak of 1993. That outbreak resulted in 750 children poisoned with 4 dying. In this case, E. Coli went undetected and slipped past all controls to find its way into the hands and stomachs of the victims. In author Jeff Benedict’s book Poisoned, the Jack in the Box executives claimed they had no idea they were serving food that could kill kids. Some of the same causes for that outbreak are still happening today, such as E. Coli-contaminated beef being shipped all over the country. Unfortunately, it seems that some restaurant organizations need to have a food safety crisis with real measurable casualties before they clean up their act and put real sustained controls in place.

One possible reason for an increase in foodborne illness outbreaks is that some people think the USDA, FDA and health departments offer enough regulation and provide adequate protection against foodborne illness. However, this is a false sense of security. The USDA is getting ready to cut 259 jobs. It’s unlikely that this will be beneficial in protecting our food supply. With budgets diminishing and health departments consolidating their services, health departments are developing new ways to reduce their regulatory oversight of the food service industry. The city of Chicago and the Maricopa County Health Department have already put new plans in place to allow responsible operators to police themselves. If this trend continues, public health officials will only have time to track down these emerging threats rather than trying to prevent them.

To further complicate the problem, food manufacturers are hiring third-party auditors to prove their food is safe, only to have that practice backfire, as seen with the recent cantaloupe and peanut outbreaks. In those cases, the auditors received harsh criticism for not identifying problems, and they gave exceptional scores to the manufacturers that hired them. Third-party auditors are useful tools only when they identify all the food safety deficiencies.

Without more oversight of food safety practices, we’ll continue to see headlines such as these:

The CDC reported 155 people sick from “Mexican Restaurant A”

112 people sick from sprouts contaminated with salmonella (linked to alfalfa sprouts served at Jimmy John’s restaurants)

146 people infected with norovirus may have become sick after eating at Bob Chinn’s Crab House

So, with many restaurants failing to understand that there is a war on foodborne illness happening, who is left to fight? For decades it has been left to local health departments. But we cannot solely rely on the public health sector to set policy and management practices for the restaurant industry. The time has come for the industry as a whole to step up and join the fight. Restaurant owners and operators should hold each other to a higher standard by educating themselves about foodborne illness and striving to serve safe food to the public.

Many in the industry are already taking responsibility. There are plenty of food-safety-conscious owners and operators who are implementing policies and best practices for preventing foodborne illness and promoting food safety in their organizations. This can be expensive, but there really is no comparison to the cost of paying damages from an outbreak. Jeff Benedict reported that it cost Jack in the Box $98 million in damages. Their insurance barely paid it all. How many restaurant organizations out there have a $100 million insurance policy? For many restaurants, having an outbreak spells bankruptcy. Jack in the Box learned its lesson the hard way. As a result, the company hired food safety expert David Theno and revamped its entire food safety program.

Restaurant owners and managers need to understand that they are potentially handling contaminated product every day. This means it’s essential to control all factors that can lead to foodborne illness.

Please contact me with any questions about foodborne illness, Dennis@resprofsp.com. For more updates and information on food safety, follow me on Twitter at @resprofsp.

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