Operations – Foodborne Illness Impact

Food borne illness outbreaks are nothing new for those in the foodservice industry. We see them time and time again, from companies big and small. However, aside from the obvious human concern, negative publicity and business impact, the companies responsible are more often facing huge fines and even possible jail time. Public safety should always be a priority, and in reality, many food borne illnesses start at the manufacturing level, but as long as food is being served to the public, and with risks higher than ever, it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure consumer food is safe.

It should be a stark reminder for any food service company that former executives of The Peanut Corporation of America were placed in federal prison last month after being sentenced in September to 20+ years each for their roles in a 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak. Criminal investigations are a new trend following food borne illness outbreaks such as the one from PCA. In January the Department of Justice (DOJ) opened an investigation into the string of Norovirus outbreaks that took place at Chipotle restaurants in California, and has a similar investigations into Blue Bell Creameries Listeriosis cases last year.

We’ve discussed before the importance of food handling procedures and focused on raw poultry. It is interesting to note, however, that fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and even dried spices can contain salmonella bacteria. Knowing how easy it is to cross-contaminate food is half the battle. Food products which may carry salmonella includes eggs, poultry, pork, beef, unpasteurized dairy products, cheese, raw grains, fruits and vegetables, spices, and nuts. Because restaurants source ingredients rather than manufacture them, your best defense is to have strict food handling and preparation policies and procedures in place. We must recognize that any slip in food handling or sanitizing procedures could have catastrophic consequences, fair or not!

The good news is that most food borne illnesses can generally be controlled by proper food storage, sanitation and cooking. Salmonella bacteria grows in moist and moderate temperature environments, usually 45 – 110 F. Cooking heat kills salmonella, freezing does not. Norovirus can also be killed by heating, and you can reduce spreading by simply rinsing fruits and vegetables, and cooking shellfish thoroughly. Critical procedures to control the spread of common food bacteria include:

• Hand washing and changing gloves whenever preparing food, touching non-food, or changing activity

• Storing raw and cooked foods in separate places at recommended temperatures

• Never storing raw foods above cooked foods

• Washing raw fruits and vegetables before cutting or consuming

• Sanitizing and keeping separate prep areas for raw meat and poultry

• Regularly cleaning and sanitizing all utensils and work surfaces

• Towel, aprons, and clothing must not touch prep and work surfaces

• Cooking all foods to recommended internal temperatures

It is clear that the DOJ is taking a firm stance on food safety for both companies and individuals. The resulting economic and physical problems from an outbreak are far worse than the time and effort that comes with a high standard of stringent food safety protocols. And when the decision to make such protocols lands on your desk, just remember that the 28 year sentence given to the former CEO of The Peanut Corporation of America is the longest sentence even given in a food poisoning case.

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