When consumers watch the nightly news and learn about a food safety problem related to restaurants, the immediate reaction of many viewers may be to avoid the implicated businesses in the coming days and weeks.
Operators who have experienced such customer reactions say almost nothing can spell disaster for a restaurant faster than a food safety issue.
Over the past few months several Taco Bell  and Taco John’s restaurants became the focus of health authorities investigating E. coli bacterial infection outbreaks in various locations around the country. Some of the outlets were forced to close their doors for as long as a week while they sanitized and replaced food supplies. The media kept the story alive by reporting every subsequent outbreak, even if it was not confirmed that it could be traced back to a restaurant location.
In the age of digital communications and the nearly instantaneous availability of breaking developments, bad news about restaurants spreads fast. Even consumers who never before thought about foodborne illnesses now think twice about eating out when there is even a hint of risk that they might become ill.
However, new research shows that many consumers still are not aware of the prevalence of foodborne illnesses. To educate consumers nationwide about how to reduce their risk, the Partnership for Food Safety Education has joined forces with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to launch Be Food Safe, a new initiative to reach consumers with messages about safe food handling.
“Our research shows that three in four adults surveyed, 77 percent, say they know how to handle food to reduce their risk of foodborne illness, yet most do not know that each year they have a one in four chance of contracting a foodborne illness,” says Shelley Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education. “Half of adults surveyed say they are not sure what their risk is, and another 42 percent underestimate their risk.”
She adds, “We are concerned that if adults do not fully understand how common foodborne illness is, they will not be vigilant about handling foods properly to safeguard their health and that of their families.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, about 76 million cases of foodborne illness occur annually in the United States. Those illnesses result in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year, the CDC indicates.
However, restaurants are fighting back against any unfounded presumptions that most of those cases are related to away-from-home dining. They’re doing that by taking proactive steps to avoid problems through training and the use of new technologies, lessening their concerns about media scrutiny.
Barbecue enthusiasts and restaurant owners have struggled with sticky fingers for years—a circumstance that can leave germ-breeding organic residues on dining surfaces. While sticky fingers may be an issue at other barbecue hot spots, they’re not a problem at Rudy’s “Country Store” and Bar-B-Q, a chain based in Texas. That’s not because lots of moist towelettes are left at each table, but because Rudy’s has taken a technological route to keep hands clean. For the past three years, two specially designed hand-washing stations equipped by a specialty vendor have been available in the restaurants’ dining rooms, and many customers take the opportunity to wash their hands after eating.
The mechanized system not only has resulted in clean hands, but it also has provided Rudy’s with an opportunity to convey its affinity for sanitation. “It promotes the restaurants’ desire to be clean and shows the customers that we are committed to cleanliness in our restaurant,” says Marlis Oliver, director of operations for four Rudy’s franchises. “Customers like it too. After they wash their hands, they get a sticker that says ‘I have clean hands.’ We go through hundreds of those stickers every day.”
The same hand-washing stations also are found in Rudy’s kitchens to help maintain compliance with Texas Health Department regulations regarding hand washing.
Other restaurants use food-safety media coverage as reminders for their employees to practice safe food policies, such as at Zov’s Bistro in Tustin, Calif.
“All of us at Zov’s take these concerns as learning opportunities for our entire staff,” says Zov Karamardian, chef-owner of Zov’s Bistro. “You just have to take these things very seriously and act accordingly. Restaurants need to protect the consumer, and when they do that, they keep food safety in a preventive mode.”
As a leading provider of buns to large restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, Tennessee Bun Co. prides itself in baking fresh sandwich buns for discerning customers. With particular attention to quality, hand washing is essential to bun production at TBC’s two 55,000-square-foot factories, including the main plant, which produces 60,000 buns per hour, or 1.2 million per day.
In addition to strict adherence to Food and Drug Administration regulations, many of Tennessee Bun’s customers require the use of touchless hand-washing systems with water dispensed at a certain temperature. However, while touchless faucets generally were easy for employees to use, they were costly appliances to maintain at controlled temperatures. TBC recently adopted the same kind of mechanized hand-washing system used by the Rudy’s chain, and the results have been positive.
“Everyone enjoys using the machines and no longer sees hand washing as a chore,” says Foster Hawkins, the bakery’s director of quality assurance and customer service.
TheNational Restaurant Association  Educational Foundation and the Food Marketing Institute held their first Food Safety Supply Chain Conference last October in Washington, D.C. That event connected restaurant and foodservice operators with food suppliers, distributors, retailers and wholesalers, as well as regulators and government officials who gathered to discuss food safety and security issues throughout the supply chain.
“Food safety is non-negotiable and a critically important part of restaurant and foodservice operations,” says Steven C. Anderson, the NRA’s president and chief executive. “The conference allowed food-safety professionals to network, share information, exchange ideas and develop solutions to the complex challenges that affect the food-safety environment in the United States.”