Paying attention to hygiene and sanitation is a vital component of restaurant success.

Food Safety: The Growing Reputational Risk

Focusing on hygiene and sanitation can protect restaurants from damaging health concerns

Over Ecolab’s many decades of support to the food service industry, we have seen considerable progress in the execution of sanitation and hygiene programs that protect public health. But each new food safety incident or norovirus outbreak and the accompanying headlines remind us that we dare not take our eyes off the ball. The public health risks continue to evolve, the reputational stakes only seem to rise, and the potential for negative financial impact keeps increasing.

Because we do thousands of audits each year, we know the importance of continual vigilance on the basics—good personal hygiene, safe food handling, and effective cleaning and sanitizing. 

In our on-site service visits, we also see emerging concerns. Consumers are asking for more local, organic and clean-label foods that can, if not carefully vetted and handled, present increased food safety risks. On the analytical side, advanced technologies capable of identifying pathogens at miniscule levels are contributing to public misperceptions. And social media is amplifying the risk of violations—actual and perceived.

The good news is that, as the challenges evolve, new technologies are also emerging to help mitigate and manage these risks. Tools such as digital monitoring and predictive analytics are enabling greater insight and control over key risk factors across your operations 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For example, Ecolab has programs that monitor dish machines remotely, ensuring that all key metrics are achieved for optimal sanitation.

However, as much as technology can help, operational excellence continues to depend, first and foremost, on human behaviors—behaviors shaped largely by culture. And this is where food service leaders have a critical role: they are in the best position to inspire a culture in which employees perform the correct hygiene and sanitation behaviors all the time, even when no one is looking. Leaders can and must demand high standards, reinforce that the public health and safety must be a top priority, and demonstrate no tolerance for corner-cutting.

As employees well know, talk can be empty without action. To demonstrate the importance of proper sanitation and hygiene, leaders can invest in tools that make it easier for workers to follow best practices. They can provide continuous training to reinforce key behaviors. They can conduct audits of their operations and use the findings to build on good behaviors and highlight areas for improvement. And they can recognize high-performing teams and celebrate their vigilance.

The cost of not fostering a culture that supports food safety and public health strikes where it hurts: the bottom line. National Restaurant Association studies show that, after a food safety incident, food service companies experience, on average, a double-digit decline in sales and per-establishment costs of $75,000 for legal fees, medical claims, lost wages, and sanitizing costs. That does not include the high price of reputational damage.

Careful attention to sanitation and hygiene clearly is a key factor in the success of any food service organization—a factor upon which leadership can exert considerable influence. I encourage you to use yours.


Dr. Ruth Petran is the vice president of food safety and public health at Ecolab. Dr. Petran provides technical expertise and consultation to internal and external customers on food safety and public health issues, and identifies and tracks emerging food safety trends and control strategies. A trusted partner at more than one million customer locations, Ecolab delivers comprehensive solutions and on-site service to promote safe food, maintain clean environments, optimize water and energy use, and improve operational efficiencies for customers in the food, healthcare, energy, hospitality and industrial markets in more than 170 countries around the world.

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