I’ve spent most of my life in the foodservice industry, and things have changed dramatically since my early days in the business.
Decades ago, we didn’t use single use gloves. Foodservice employees wore their hair down. We hadn’t heard of Hepatitis A, E.coli, Norovirus, Salmonellosis or Shigellosis. During my early days, food safety wasn’t even discussed.
Then, in 1993, Jack in the Box had a huge E.coli crisis. They inadvertently served undercooked hamburgers; 700 individuals became ill, 171 were hospitalized and four died. This tragic outbreak put food safety on the map. Since then, food safety protocols have been developed and implemented to keep customers safe.
In the 25 years since the Jack in the Box outbreak, there have been countless other food safety breaches in our convenience stores, grocery retailers, restaurants and other food businesses. Often, these incidents are a direct result of human error—such as cross-contaminating, failing to check temperatures, “forgetting” to close a cooler door or forgoing proper handwashing.
Foodborne illness is 100% preventable. It’s wise to go “back to basics” with your store employees to ensure they’re following food safety protocols—all the time, during every shift—to minimize risks and keep guests safe.
When you go back to basics, you should:
- Create a food safety culture that’s adopted and embraced from the executive level to hourly team members. Don’t just talk the talk—walk the walk. Demonstrate (with words and actions) that food safety is a priority in your store, and that everyone should work diligently to keep the foods, customers and business safe.
- Don’t just create policies and procedures, but explain why the policies are important. It’s not enough just to say that handwashing is mandatory, or that separate cutting boards/knives/equipment must be used for raw proteins vs. ready-to-eat foods. Your employees are more likely to comply if they understand why the rules are in place.
- Don’t allow employees to work when they’re ill. They could spread serious illnesses like norovirus, which is highly contagious. Staying home when ill should be mandatory—even if you’re short-staffed or have to scramble to staff a shift. Norovirus has contaminated entire cruise ships, schools—even an Olympic village. Don’t let it contaminate your store.
- Train continuously. Educate employees about proper handwashing, avoiding cross-contamination, using thermometers and following other critical food safety procedures. Train employees when they’re hired, and at regular intervals throughout the year, to keep this important information top-of-mind.
- Insist on regular hand washing. Hand washing is the No. 1 most important thing that your employees can do to keep foods (and customers) safer. Employees should wash their hands at the start and end of each shift, after using the restroom, after handling money, touching their germy cellphones, using cleaning supplies, shaking hands and after coughing/sneezing, etc. Be sure a hand-washing sink is easily accessible, and provide plenty of soap and single use towels.
- Use food thermometers. This helps employees spot temperature issues before they become a cost factor or a liability issue. Insist that employees take the temperatures of proteins cooked in your store to ensure they’ve reached proper cooking temps. Additionally, they should take the temperature of cold foods upon delivery. If foods have been temperature abused prior to getting to your store, there’s nothing you can do to make them safer afterwards.
- Conduct self-inspections. Catch small issues before they become big problems. For example, if your recent delivery wasn’t stored properly, you can take corrective action. Otherwise, there could be a spoilage issue, a cross-contamination problem, etc. Be honest in your self-assessments. While it’s not ideal to have to throw out a quantity of spoiled food, it becomes a much bigger issue if you inadvertently serve the contaminated food to customers.
- Work with third party auditors. Someone objective from the “outside” will see things from a different perspective and point out possible infractions. Hire someone reputable, who knows the business, and genuinely cares about your outcome. While some retailers (and other food businesses) may balk at the expense of bringing in an outside expert, I can assure you that this cost is a mere fraction of what you’d experience during a food safety crisis (e.g., legal fees, lawsuits, lost revenue, decreased customers/loyalty, falling stock prices, etc.)
- Check deliveries. Supplies must arrive at the proper temperature—hot food hot, cold food cold, frozen food frozen and products properly sealed. Empower every employee to refuse any damaged or potentially unsafe food delivery.
- Don’t cross-contaminate. Employees should understand the danger of using the same equipment (e.g., cutting boards, knives, platters, etc.) to prep raw proteins and then prep ready-to-eat foods. Raw proteins (e.g., poultry, meats, eggs) can transfer harmful bacteria to ready-to-eat foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, nuts) and sicken guests that consume them. Ready-to-eat foods are more vulnerable to foodborne illness risks, as they don’t have the “kill step” of cooking.
- Take food allergies seriously. Food-allergic customers can’t have even a trace of their allergen – and this is a matter of life and death. All employees should be aware of the ingredients in the foods you serve (e.g., if you have a fryer, do you use peanut oil in it? If so, fried foods could be deadly for a peanut-allergic customer.) Make sure all of the foods you sell are properly labeled. Work only with vendors and suppliers that are careful about their labels/ingredients.
Establish—and implement—food safety protocols, and regularly remind employees about the importance of taking these procedures seriously. Make food safety part of your store’s culture to minimize your foodborne illness risks.
Francine Shaw is president of Savvy Food Safety Inc., which offers a roster of services, including consulting, food safety education, food safety inspections, crisis management training, writing norovirus policies for employees, writing norovirus clean-up procedures, curriculum development, responsible alcohol service training and more. Shaw is a well-respected international speaker, and has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets.