Total Recall: Hold Suppliers Accountable for Their Outbreaks

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Foodborne illness outbreaks in restaurants often have many casualties. The customers and restaurants assume the consequences. Paying hefty settlements to victims and the loss of reputation can cripple an organization while the supplier remains untouched. Even restaurants with the best food safety practices can’t escape an outbreak, which is why we see outbreaks associated with restaurants almost every day. Jimmy John’s keeps getting ripped apart for serving contaminated sprouts, but should we be blaming them for sourcing sprouts that were contaminated from their supplier? Maybe so, but when suppliers ship out product that is contaminated and it leads to an outbreak, they often find ways to shift blame and leave others holding the bag. Suppliers must be held accountable for the product they send.

Indemnity Clause

The first way restaurants and other retail outlets can protect themselves is with an indemnity clause. This clause should be added to their supplier contracts. The clause shifts the liability from the facility serving the tainted food to the entity that contaminated it to begin with. Look at the lesson Sizzler learned from their meat supplier, Cargill:

In 2000, Cargill provided meat to Sizzler restaurants that was linked to an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses that killed one person and sickened 62.

Both Sizzler and Cargill were sued in these cases even though the contaminated beef from Cargill was found to be the cause. Originally, Cargill successfully sued Sizzler and blamed them for cross-contamination as the cause of the outbreak. Sizzler fought back and won an appeal against Cargill. Meanwhile, Cargill continues to be involved in outbreak after outbreak.

Inspect Suppliers

Inspections of the supplier facilities are also extremely important. Restaurants should hire their own inspectors to audit their suppliers. Many of the plants hire third-party auditors to prove they are producing safe products, but this contributes to a conflict of interest. Recent outbreaks such as the listeria-tainted cantaloupes from Jensen Farms or the outbreak from the Peanut Corporation of America were traced to plants that had recent inspections with very high scores. Using inspectors that aren’t financially attached to the suppliers will only have a restaurant’s best interest in mind. Then there is the recent research from the CDC about more outbreaks coming from imported food. The report shows that from 2005–2010, 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses came from 15 different countries.

Obviously, smaller chains and single-store outlets don’t have the resources to inspect all their suppliers, but they can do a thorough background check to see if suppliers have been involved in outbreaks in the past. Doing online research of companies that supply food can be a very eye-opening experience. By only choosing suppliers that have a clean record and a responsible operation, the irresponsible suppliers will suffer and either clean up their act or go out of business.

A sound food safety program is no longer enough. Restaurants need to go farther up the supply chain and limit their liability by inspecting, investigating, and indemnifying their suppliers. If the restaurant industry as a whole did this, it would weed out the bad players and reward the good ones. As a result, recalls, outbreaks, and lawsuits would decrease, hopefully making eating out a lot safer.

Here are a few other outbreaks where the retail outlet suffered financially from receiving contaminated products:

Jack in the Box

1993: E. Coli outbreak—contaminated beef
Supplier: Von Companies of California

Sheetz

2004: Salmonella outbreak—contaminated tomatoes
Supplier: Coronet Foods

Taco Bell

2006: E. coli outbreak—contaminated lettuce
Supplier: Ready Pac Produce

Jimmy John’s

2008: E. coli outbreak—alfalfa sprouts
Supplier: Sprout Extraordinaire

2009: Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak—alfalfa sprouts
Supplier: CW Sprouts, Inc.

2010: Salmonella outbreak—alfalfa sprouts
Supplier: Tiny Greens Organic Farms

2010: Salmonella Newport outbreak—sprouts
Supplier: Sprouters Northwest

2011: E. coli outbreak—clover sprouts from a common lot of seeds
Suppliers: Two unnamed suppliers

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