Responding to food safety crises, restaurants promise to do better

News

Some might say Taco Bell can't catch a break – much less a rodent.

Just months after an e-coli outbreak sickened 71 people in four Eastern states last fall, rats videotaped at a New York City Taco Bell unit sent the company scurrying for damage control.

"We are absolutely committed to our customers and have worked with ADF [a franchisee of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut] to close their uninspected restaurants in New York until they are fully inspected by the health department and given a clean bill of health," said Emil Brolick, president, U.S. Brands, Yum! Brands Inc., late last month in a news release.

The speed with which information moves today – thanks to television and the Internet – means restaurants cannot afford to hide from a scandal or downplay its significance.

Two days after Brolick disclosed the closing of restaurants until further notice, he informed the public that the restaurant hired Dr. Robert Corrigan, a pest control expert, to inspect New York City operations.

Last fall, the Irvine, Calif.-based company and the industry also reacted to the e-coli scandal with pledges of reform.

"In light of recent outbreaks, it showed us we need to take a leadership role from the farm to the back of our restaurants to make sure effective change is made," affirmed Donna Garren, vice president of health and safety regulatory affairs for the National Restaurant Association.

Aproduce food safety conference that will be held at the end of this month in Monterey, Calif., specifically will address the Taco Bell e-coli incident — lettuce is believed to have been the source of the E. coli outbreak and what action needs to be taken to improve the handling of produce in the supply chain.

The produce industry needs a push, Garren suggested.

"The produce industry, through self policing, has not been effective at preventing contamination in this area," she said. "It really is an issue for us to say, in order to sell into the restaurant industry, much more needs to be done."

It's hard to determine what the smoking gun is, Garren said. The contamination could take place at various places in the supply chain, from the packing to the processing to the harvesting of the produce. One culprit could be a lack of microbiologically sound water in irrigation. Contamination also could come from organic soil amendments. Other sources could be improper field sanitation, animals that may carry the contamination to water sources, or the health and hygiene of workers.

"We believe there needs to be more done to make sure this isn't a continuing thing," Garren said.

Restaurants also are taking steps on their own. Since the Taco Bell e-coli crisis, more restaurants voluntarily are seeking certification in ServSafe, a food safety training program from the National Restaurant Association, said Rick J. Sampson, president and chief executive of the New York State Restaurant Association. The state's Department of Health uses ServSafe as the standard, he said.

"We're starting to fill those classes," Sampson noted. "We're certainly seeing an increase for a number of reasons: one, to protect their business; and two, to give their consumers piece of mind."

Restaurants know the consequences of a foodborne illness outbreak on business, he said, adding, "You might has well put the key in the door. It's over."

Restaurants are educating the public more about food safety than they were a few years ago, according to one food safety advocate.

"What I've noticed in the last couple of years is a tremendous increase in the number of restaurants that are upfront with food safety instead of burying it," said Donna Rosenbaum, president of S.T.O.P., or Safe Tables Our Priority, an organization that works to promote food safety and prevent foodborne illness.

It's not unusual to see, for example, food safety messages on doggie bags and food safety information on menus, said Rosenbaum who became a food safety advocate following the notorious foodborne illness outbreak at the Jack in the Box chain in 1993. In that incident, tainted meat from the now 300-unit fast-food chain in San Diego killed four and sickened hundreds. One of those who died was a friend of Rosenbaum's daughter, who now is in college.

Putting information on take-home bags is smart, because restaurants don't want people getting sick, and they don't have control over the food product once it leaves the restaurant, she said.

"The more information they put out there, the better off everyone is," she said.

Showing the public you're interested in safety makes good business sense, Rosenbaum said.

When patrons "see the restaurant thinking about [food safety], they see it as a place they can trust," she said.

Consumers also have become savvier about food safety and often approach restaurants to find out about ingredients and nutritional content.

"I think there's more awareness by the public about foodborne illnesses, about hand washing, about potentially dangerous foods," said Pete Meersman, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association. Food safety can be a marketing tool. One restaurant in Hawaii has let it be known that it is using pasteurized shell eggs in every egg dish to eliminate the risk of Salmonella enteritidis, the main egg-related Salmonella bacteria.

"We want to provide the safest option when using eggs throughout the kitchen," said Barry Allison, owner of the Kihei Caffe in Maui, in a press release. "By using pasteurized shell eggs, we can provide guests with their favorite egg entrées, such as over easy and sunny side up, while avoiding cross contamination within the entire kitchen."