Restaurants are often hectic, fast-paced places with lots of kitchen activity and chaos. In the midst of a busy shift, employees might take occasional “short cuts,” like not walking across the kitchen to use the designated hand-washing sink or using the same knife and board to chop peanuts and then prep a salad. Or, perhaps, they don’t realize the importance of using a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the proteins in their meals and, as a result, serve undercooked meat. Any of these decisions, or errors, could result in a foodborne illness incident, potentially harming—or even killing—your guests.
Foodborne illness incidents and outbreaks are a huge concern for the food service industry, and numerous incidents have occurred in restaurants recently. Even innocent or careless mistakes could sicken guests and ruin a restaurant’s reputation. Foodborne illnesses could be avoided if restaurants and other food service organizations adopted a food safety culture, providing ongoing education and training and implementing proper food safety protocols.
Adopt a food safety culture that starts at the top, with buy-in from leadership. Demonstrate that food safety is a priority and must be taken seriously by every employee, during every shift, and with every meal. Develop a corporate culture that emphasizes safety, cleanliness, and the importance of following well-established food safety protocols, ensuring that employees work continuously towards the food safety mission that you’ve put into place.
Implement these important strategies to create and maintain a food safety culture:
1. Start at the Top
Ensure that your owners, managers, and company leaders are “walking the walk,” setting a good example for employees to follow. Emphasize and demonstrate a strong commitment and mindset around food safety—that’s just as important as enforcing rules and protocols when building a food safety culture in a restaurant environment.
2. Explain Why
It’s not enough to tell employees that they need to do specific things in the name of food safety (e.g., not cut raw poultry on the same board as ready-to-eat foods, take the internal temperatures of foods, maintain an allergen-free prep area.) Explain why it’s so important to follow each specific protocol so they understand the reasoning behind the rules and will be more likely and willing to comply.
3. Provide Ongoing Food Safety Training for All Staff
Food safety training and education should be an ongoing effort. Train new employees immediately and emphasize why food safety is—and will continue to be—a huge priority for your organization. Provide continuous updates and refresher courses for all staff to keep the food safety “rules” top-of-mind.
4. Provide the Proper Equipment
Stock your commercial kitchen with the necessary tools to safely prepare and serve food. For instance, ensure there are food thermometers at every workstation so employees can easily and regularly check the temperatures of the foods they’re preparing.
5. Keep Temperature Logs
Insist that employees take the temperature of foods at specific times, such as upon arrival, during the cooking process, and so on. Make proper record-keeping part of your employees’ regular routine.
6. Inspect Food to Make Sure It’s Safe Upon Arrival
If food isn’t safe when it arrives at your facility, such as previously frozen foods have arrived thawed, there is nothing your team can do to make it safe later. Empower your staff to refuse potentially unsafe foods.
7. Stay Informed and Aware
Recently, hundreds of people were sickened by contaminated papayas from Mexico. Stay current on news stories about foodborne illness outbreaks to ensure that you’re not buying or using potentially unsafe or foods.
8. Conduct Self-Inspections
Emphasize that food safety should be taken seriously every day, with every meal. Even the most motivated, well-trained employee can make careless errors, so regular self-inspections should be part of your protocols and ingrained in your culture.
9. Avoid Careless Mistakes
Remind all employees that even seemingly “minor” mistakes could sicken, or even kill guests. For instance, they should know not to use the same rag to wipe the dirty floor and then wash the tables. Insist that they wash their hands carefully and often, including after touching raw food, money, cellphones, doorknobs, menus, shaking hands, emptying the trash, and using the restroom.
10. Follow Food Allergy Protocols
When preparing and serving food for a food-allergic guest, make sure all employees are aware of the allergy. Everyone involved in preparing the meal should double check ingredients; use clean gloves, knives, and equipment; prep the food in an allergy-friendly area; and avoid careless and potentially harmful mistakes, such as garnishing a plate with peanuts when serving a peanut-allergic guest.
11. Hire Third-Party Food Safety Experts
It can be extremely helpful to have an objective, third-party expert inspect your facilities, speak with your staff, provide food safety training, and ensure that all food safety protocols are being followed. Bringing in an outside expert also helps reinforce the message that your organization believes in the importance of food safety and is committed to the protocols that will maximize safety and cleanliness in your organization.
Creating, implementing, and promoting a food safety culture doesn’t need to be expensive, time-consuming or complicated, and it’s among the best things that you can do for your business, your employees, and your guests.
Francine L. Shaw is president of Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc., which offers consulting, food safety education, food safety inspections, crisis management training, writing norovirus policies, curriculum development, responsible alcohol service training, and more. Francine has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the Dr. Oz Show and the Huffington Post.