Day after day, I watch the list of foodborne illness casualties accumulate. As a food safety expert, I receive a ridiculous number of recall alerts and foodborne illness outbreak notices daily. And I watch in amazement as the food service industry continues to be in denial about our country’s serious, ongoing food safety problem. Things won’t get better until the industry admits there is a problem, and takes measureable steps to improve their food safety protocols.
In 2017, there were a total of 438 recalls, with the leading cause being the presence of undeclared allergens and mislabeled products. Nearly half the recalls contained known food allergens (i.e., wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, etc.) that were not listed on the product label – a serious (potentially deadly) issue for food-allergic individuals. Some misbranded products had serious errors on their labels. For example, the Food Industry Counsel reported one raw pork product was labeled as ready-to-eat (RTE), when it wasn’t cooked at all.
The second leading cause of recalls in 2017 was due to the possible presence of dangerous pathogens in RTE foods. Listeria monocytogenes was the number one pathogen found in recalled products, including hummus, protein bars, nuts, soup and waffles.
In the U.S., food safety regulators are recalling about twice as many products as they did a decade ago. Frequently, when industry insiders are questioned about the increase in the number of recalls, they cite new technology as a means to discover problems sooner so that action can be take more quickly to remove potentially contaminated or mislabeled foods from the shelves.
So why aren’t we using these technologies to prevent foodborne illnesses from happening in the first place? If we have the technology to discover the problems after they occur – when the products are already in the marketplace and sickening or even killing people – certainly we have the technology to prevent these mistakes from occurring? Which leads me to believe poor food safety culture, lack of education, poor training, operational consistency, and margin pressures may be at least partially to blame.
In this country alone, there are 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths each year from foodborne illnesses – needlessly. Foodborne illnesses are 100 percent preventable. The foodservice industry is in complete denial about the seriousness of this issue, and how widespread the problems have become.
Over the years, I have worked in all areas of the foodservice and food safety industries – academia, regulatory, and the private sector. I have seen and heard it all. One major issue is that many food service workers simply disregard basic food safety protocols. I’ve encountered mystery meat being held in five gallon chemical buckets, I’ve seen a goat being slaughtered in a restaurant kitchen. I’ve had cockroaches literally raining on my head in a commercial kitchen. Operators have complained to me about the “stupid” food manager certification exam they didn’t want to take, and a corporate executive told me he didn’t care about the food safety lessons I was teaching: “my people just need to pass the test”. I’ve watched employees scramble when the health inspector walks in, trying to prevent citations for basic safety violations. I’ve seen restaurant employees change dates on expired product, rather than discard it, to save food costs. Food safety violations happen daily. Many in the business clearly demonstrate that they simply don’t care about this issue.
Many 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. Most corporations have had the same food safety plan in place for decades, following the mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They resist change, fearing that anything new will be too expensive, time-consuming, overwhelming or burdensome. They don’t want to take simple (yet valuable) actions to improve their food safety practices – and keep their guests safer.
While some organizations hire third-party inspectors to conduct inspections quarterly, semi-annually, or annually (which is a good thing!), others opt to bypass these inspections, usually due to cost factors. The irony is that the cost of these inspections is far lower than the costs associated with a food safety breach, which the inspections could have prevented. Frankly, these inspections are critical to finding potential food safety concerns, and preventing problems from becoming liabilities.
I’ve been asked to conduct “announced inspections” on a few occasions. These are pointless in most cases, as stores over-prepare for inspections that they know are coming. It’s much more productive to have surprise inspections, where the third-party expert can examine what’s happening on a “typical” shift and point out infractions to help the team improve.
Having spent over 20 years in the food service industry, I know there’s a paperwork overload in this business! For instance, after inspections are finished, the paperwork is left on the manager’s desk and the information dies there. The managers see the inspections as a necessary evil, or as a box being checked.They give it absolutely no thought once the inspection is over. The paperwork is endless: shift checklists, temperature logs, receiving logs, inventory, waste/shrink logs, etc. HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plans must be updated anytime there is a new menu item, new ingredient, new piece of equipment, etc. Many HACCP plans were written years ago, placed in binders, put on shelves, and haven’t been looked at in years.
Technology would help reduce or eliminate foodborne illness incidents and outbreaks, yet the industry is fighting the idea of utilizing these tech tools. Yes, technology is an investment, but the amount of money it will actually save long-term is mind boggling. Much of the pencil and paper tracking isn’t even taking place – and these companies aren’t thinking about the ramifications of fraudulent company documentation! What happens if someone gets a foodborne illness and copies of your companies shift checks from 14 months ago are requested? Could you produce them? Were they even completed? After witnessing the paperwork chaos that occurs in most organizations, I seriously doubt it.
Another part of my daily vocabulary: diarrhea and vomit. Sick employees can pass along serious illnesses to other employees and guests – and contaminate the food they handle – so they shouldn’t work when exhibiting these symptoms. And, yet, some managers decide that they’re short-staffed on a hectic shift, and make the unwise decision to let sick employees stay and work. Sick employees could easily pass along the highly contagious norovirus, which could sicken others, and do major damage to the company’s reputation.
I love what I do, and I’m very passionate about food safety. I understand the ongoing challenges of managing profitability and being accountable to brand ownership. However, I also understand the food safety vulnerabilities, which the industry seems to be denying. I have serious concerns about our food service industry and their lackluster approach to food safety. Preventative measures such as third-party inspectors, technology, updating your food safety plans, and revamping the corporate food safety culture are an expense but also a worthwhile investment. Don’t wait until you’re the next company in crisis mode to take action. Start the process now.