Image from Scientific American
You can’t see them, but if they get into your food, look out. Havoc is about to be wreaked. From a whole range of E.coli strains to Salmonella, Listeria to Norovirus, fresh produce, seafood, poultry and meats are all vulnerable to contamination. Those microscopic pathogens might be invisible to the naked eye, but a food business has to imagine that these little creatures are as big and bold as day, and your single-most important job is to make sure they don’t show up at your doors.
It’s a tough break that Chipotle has endured in the aftermath of the consecutive food borne illness outbreaks linked to the national chain – one with a pretty squeaky clean reputation. Monetizing the loss is one thing, from plummeting stock prices of more than 40% and sales down as much as 37% What you can’t put a price on are the after-effects – wide-sweeping headlines, tons of bad press, consumer confidence loss, consumers hospitalized and a reputation forever associated with ‘illness’. The fact is, any time your focus is on fresh food, you are inviting a whole host of different pathogens to the party. It’s part of being an ‘organic host’ so to speak – the bacteria love to show up because the food is fresh and raw!
If this doesn’t make other restaurant chains and food service outlets quake in their boots, I don’t know what could. It’s not a matter of IF another outbreak will happen. It’s WHEN. Making sure your customers are safe is the primary responsibility of anyone selling food, and certainly a wake-up call and a quick invitation to evaluate food safety protocol and mitigation procedures internally. The vast majority of the issues that come up are PREVENTABLE. The fact is,CDC statistics show that from 1998 to 2014, there were 1,969 outbreaks in “sit-down” restaurants, causing 26,350 illnesses, 1,206 hospitalizations, and eight deaths. By upholding proper washing, food handling, storage and serving practices
Here are our TOP 7 suggestions to help prevent a Chipotle-sized disaster:
- Wash produce properly: While the jury has not conclusively confirmed the actual cause of the Chipotle outbreaks and may never, research has found it is likely due to a variety of produce items. Has the produce been properly washed and handled? Many vendors offer pre-washed produce, however, if they are using water alone, their pathogen reduction capabilities may not be sufficient. According to Emeritus Professor, Dr. Shawki Ibrahim, a mild plant-based cleanser can be helpful in removing visible dirt and surface residue. It is best to avoid alcohol, as this can be unsafe, particularly for children if consumed. Based on 5 separate independent lab tests, we found rinsing with water alone to be 0% to 30% effective in removing bacteria. Make sure to ask your vendor suppliers how they are washing your fruit and veggies, particularly leafy greens since they are the #1 cause of food borne illness based on data collected by the FDA over a 10 year period. If you are washing your produce in-house, we suggest using a lab-proven product that is safe and chemical free, such as eatSafe 4x Produce Wash. Lab results below* illustrate efficacy of eatCleaner products vs. water in killing pathogens such as E.coli, Listeria and Salmonella. Water alone shows ‘No Change’, or 0 efficacy.
- Know where your food comes from: Sourcing practices have taken the search for food global, yet less than 1% of all imports are inspected by the FDA, according to their website at http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm048631.htm. Ask your vendors about their growing, washing and storage practices, ask for audit reports and also ask for micro reports. Products that are being pre-washed should be going through regular microbiological testing, and having access to these reports can be critical. Ask your vendor or your distributor for these. Don’t assume or take anything for granted! Just because you buy it from a local farmer’s market doesn’t necessarily mean it was grown locally. Ultimately it is your name on the face of your business, not theirs. Make sure there is a traceability plan in place to help you refer back to a contaminated produce lot if (God forbids) the need arises
- Grind your own: If you’re serving burgers or anything made with ground beef, think about this. There can be as many as 100 or more beef cattle parts combined into one hamburger, making it virtually impossible to trace back to a particular cow should a case of E.coli rear its ugly head. Think about grinding your own meat to make those patties, and market it as a differentiator to your customers.
- Store food at correct temperatures: If you are offering cut produce, prepared salads, particularly with dairy items, or raw foods, storing them at the proper temperature is critical. Heat can become a breeding ground for bacteria where they can grow exponentially in just minutes. Perishable food should never sit out for more than two hours and if the temperature is above 90°F, one hour is the maximum. If it is on a salad bar, keeping foods chilled on ice and turning them over every 30 minutes is suggested. Make sure to monitor your walk-in and freezer temperatures regularly to make sure they’re in the proper range.
- Practice proper food handling skills: I’ve been astounded to see many chains not using simple food safety standards like using gloves and head coverings! It is incumbent on anyone in food service to practice these very simple rules to prevent disaster. Also, be meticulous about cutting raw produce or proteins anywhere near each other to prevent cross contamination. One of the worst, avoidable food safety disasters I’ve ever heard involved a customer eating raw ahi tuna cross contaminated with raw chicken. Although not all of your employees may be ServSafe or HACCP trained, everyone should have a good understanding of how to handle various products.
- Send ill employees home: If someone on your serving or kitchen team handling food is ill, running a fever or has had – well, diarrhea or other intestinal issues – don’t gamble. Send them home and make sure there’s at least a 24 hour illness-free period before they come back to the kitchen. They do this in schools, we should uphold the same standards when it comes to our sustenance.
- Check for damage and expiration dates. Avoid any cans or packages that are dented, opened or leaking. Also, make sure to check expiration dates and avoid buying perishables too close to expiration. This seems like a no-brainer, but make sure you share this practice with your whole team. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to post your practices where everyone can see them, every day. Repetition equals results.