Chipotle has been spotlighted in the news in the last several weeks because of a massive outbreak of food-borne illnesses in multiple Northwest locations. The incident was so extensive and widespread that Chipotle had to close 43 locations in Oregon and Washington State. The Chipotle crisis should make everyone in the foodservice business pause for a moment and rethink their business—I mean really rethink their business.
This isn’t Chipotle’s first brush with food-borne illness this year. Just a few months ago in Simi Valley, California, nearly 100 probable cases of Norovirus were reported from just one Chipotle restaurant, which was closed for a thorough cleaning. During the same timeframe, at least 64 additional individuals became ill with Salmonella symptoms, mostly at Chipotle restaurants in the Twin Cities, Minnesota metro area. Nine of those people were hospitalized.
Chipotle absolutely has strong food safety policies and procedures in place, and their corporate office carefully researches their suppliers. After all, their slogan is “food with integrity.” Yet it appears that more than 100 individuals became ill with Norovirus, Salmonella, and E.coli after dining at Chipotle restaurants this year. Many were hospitalized, 44 restaurants closed in three states, and the company’s stock plummeted—only a few days after their biggest gain in four years. How did this happen to such a reputable company, one who has grown at a remarkable pace over the past several years? Obviously something is amiss.
An organization can have all of the correct policies and procedures in place but it doesn’t do a bit of good if those mandates are nothing more than words on paper, in notebooks, shoved on shelves, collecting dust in offices. Food safety training and certification is equally valuable, but is your organization training to pass an exam or training to “teach” food safety? There is a difference. It’s essential that all foodservice companies create food safety cultures. You must live, eat, and breathe food safety—don’t just talk about it. You may consider training to be expensive, but consider the much higher cost of a food-borne illness outbreak.
Food poisoning lawsuits are being filed nearly every day, though most are not covered in the media as extensively as the recent Chipotle outbreaks have been. The figures from the litigation suits that have been published are very large. Attorney Bill Marler says his firm, Marler Clark, has won millions from foodservice companies—including prestigious restaurants—that have sickened customers.
While Chipotle is considered a fast casual, that doesn’t leave fine-dining or full-service restaurants out of the equation. Food safety standards are the same regardless of restaurants’ genre—and the risk is real in every kitchen.
At Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc., we offer tips for foodservice industry professionals, teaching them how to reduce the risks of sickening guests:
Purchase from approved reputable suppliers.
Require your suppliers to have HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) plans. Obtain copies of their documentation for your records.
Require all management personnel to obtain a Food Manager’s Certification.
Make certain that everyone on your staff washes their hands appropriately, with soap and hot water, using single-use towels to dry them.
Keep hot food hot and cold food cold, or don’t keep it.
Food thermometers must be easily accessible—not locked in the office—and should be used to monitor the temperature of food.
Food thermometers should be calibrated daily at a minimum; I recommend once a shift (and, when they are new, prior to their initial use, and also if they are dropped).
Take the temperatures of products upon delivery. If food products are unsafe when they arrive, there is nothing you can do to make them safe later.
TRAIN, TRAIN, TRAIN, and TRAIN some more. When you have well-trained staff, there’s a much higher chance that they’ll properly prepare the food, which will make your establishment safer and more profitable. This will also lower your risks for liability, a ruined reputation, and other negative fall-out from a food-borne illness incident.
After watching this recent E.coli outbreak unfold, all 43 locations that were impacted have been cleaned and sanitized and are on track to re-open. The suspicion is that the illness came from the produce, something served in nearly every restaurant—from fast-casual to full-service.
It typically takes significant time for restaurants to recover after an event such as this, and they must work long and hard to regain their reputation and their customers’ trust. It would be so much easier to prevent food poisoning from happening in the first place. Remember, food-borne illnesses are 100 percent preventable, so prevent them from happening in your restaurant!
The opinions of contributors are their own. Publication of their writing does not imply endorsement by FSR magazine or Journalistic Inc.