Wiping out foodborne illness

Experts share tips and best practices at 2012 Food Safety Symposium

The invitation-only Food Safety Symposium, sponsored by Ecolab and produced by Nation’s Restaurant News, brought together food-safety and quality-assurance professionals from many of the country’s biggest restaurant companies. The three-day event featured keynote speakers, panels and roundtables on pressing food-safety issues as well as several networking opportunities, including a visit to the Denver campus of Johnson & Wales University.

Education alone is not enough to change behaviors surrounding food safety; you need to compel food handlers to change their behaviors through dialogue and surprising messages, said Ben Chapman, Ph.D., assistant professor and food-safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, in his keynote address. “To get people to wash their hands better, talk about barf; talk about diarrhea,” he said.

In 2007 Chapman started using stories to change behaviors. Today many of those narratives can be found on Barfblog.com, a website with 10,000 subscribers to which Chapman contributes along with other food-safety experts. He is also associated with the website foodsafetyinfosheets.com, where employers and others with a stake in food safety can download educational materials with catchy graphics and text.

Chapman emphasized that food-safety training for servers should differ from that for managers and line cooks, with each audience receiving messages pertinent to their jobs.

The most effective food-safety programs are built on reality-based research and have a training tool developed specifically for the target audience and a means to evaluate efficacy, he said.

He also underscored the importance of observation, recounting a research project in which he set up eight cameras in a commercial kitchen to watch employee hand-washing practices and look for instances of direct and indirect cross-contamination.

The busier employees became, the sloppier they were about food safety, increasing instances of indirect cross-contamination, Chapman said. He also found that most problems with hand washing centered on improper drying technique rather than washing technique.

Such discoveries come only from observation, Chapman said. Restaurant operators need to create a system where managers have time to walk around and observe food-safety practices so they can later discuss and then change improper behaviors.

Listening can also be beneficial in pinpointing food-safety problems, said panelists discussing effective foodborne-illness response systems.

During fact finding following an outbreak, it’s important not only to review data related to the incident, but to listen to anecdotal accounts as well, said Terry Marek, senior food-safety manager for Compass Group.

Leslie Frank, REHS, senior environmental health specialist for Jefferson County Public Health in Colorado, agreed, noting that it is important to cast a wide net when an outbreak occurs because usually “more than one thing went wrong.”

Frank gave operators fair warning about the types of information they may be held accountable for if their restaurants are implicated in an outbreak. She said her department asks operators for equipment maintenance and calibration logs, food-temperature-check logs, employee absence notes, and reservations lists, if any, that can be used to contact diners other than the complaining parties to determine if they, too, have become ill.

Several participants said they suspected more people were calling with false claims of foodborne illness and food tampering. For this reason it’s important during the interview process to listen for such trigger phrases as, “I don’t want to contact: the health department, an attorney, the media,” or references to the price of the meal.

One operator said he mitigates such threats by contacting the health department directly, which during its interview process can also ferret out fraudulent claims. In addition, the health department can confirm whether a complaint could be part of a previously reported outbreak.

“Personally, I think we have to fall on the sword for food safety,” said Dustin Dixon, vice president of food safety and quality assurance for Bob Evans Farms Inc., adding that he advocates full transparency with the health department and other agencies.

To avoid outbreaks related to employee illness, operators should think about creating sick work-exclusion policies, Dixon said. Such policies should not be punitive toward sick employees, but encourage them to speak up about illness by arranging shifts to recoup lost pay — one of the leading reasons employees show up at work when they are sick. Dixon also urged operators to demand that their suppliers have sick work-exclusion policies.

Dixon suggested operators have in hand a checklist for potential outbreaks that includes prescripted media comments, access to a medical doctor to talk about the situation, and relations with a third-party communications expert to coordinate ongoing interaction with the media, attorneys and the family members of those stricken by illness.

Test your crisis management plan and retrain regularly, he added.

In a discussion of vendor audits, panelists urged attendees to make Global Food Safety Initiative, or GFSI, certification a condition of doing business. GFSI programs establish a baseline for due diligence that is intended to boost confidence in the supply chain.

Cindy Jiang, senior director of worldwide food safety, quality and nutrition for McDonald’s Corp., said that a GFSI working group she is involved with soon expects to release guidelines or recommendations “to increase the competency of auditors.”

Food safety “auditing is not a career, as it is in accounting,” Jiang said. “We want to move it toward that.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law in 2011, is also intended to improve confidence in the food supply chain by establishing new rules for suppliers and importers intended to prevent food-safety incidents and expanding the enforcement powers of the Food and Drug Administration.

Some rules were expected to be promulgated earlier this year but are not out yet, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh Produce Association. Guenther noted that the delay is frustrating to growers looking to reassure the public that produce is safe.

The FSMA’s exemption of small farms from certain provisions were of concern to some attendees, given the growing focus on local sourcing of produce.

In a closing keynote speech, veteran foodborne-illness litigator William “Bill” Marler told restaurateurs they can take at least five steps to improve the safety of the menu items they sell and, in the process, reduce their legal liability.

Marler and his law firm, Marler Clark of Seattle, have won more than $600 million in damages for plaintiffs in foodborne-illness cases. He is currently involved in several lawsuits, including those surrounding the deadly 2011 outbreak linked to cantaloupe.

When asked after his keynote presentation if he would share his thoughts about the No. 1 step operators can take to limit their foodborne-illness liability, the attorney replied, “It’s not one thing; it’s a combination of things.”

“You are only as good as the products that are coming into your facility, and so I think getting the incentives right on audits is incredibly important,” Marler said, referring to breakdowns that can occur in safety audit systems, as exemplified by developments at Peanut Corp. of America and Jensen Farms. Both of those companies had been given passing scores by contract auditors prior to having their products linked to two of the largest foodborne-illness outbreaks in history.

Marler suggested that safety audit effectiveness might improve if such reviews were put under the purview of the government as opposed to contract firms whose livelihoods often depend on repeat business with the firms they monitor, or if more auditors of manufacturers were hired by companies further down the supply chain, such as the restaurant and grocery chains that deal directly with the consumers who may be injured or killed in an outbreak.

His other tips for restaurateurs interested in reducing their food-safety liability:

- Have appropriate indemnity agreements with your vendors.
- Get your company named as a co-insured party on vendor insurance policies because, “if something happens, you’ll want to push that liability upstream,” he said.
- Have well-trained and committed employees.
“In an environment of turnover, that can be very, very difficult” to achieve, the attorney noted.
- Get employees vaccinated for hepatitis A.

“That’s low-lying fruit,” Marler said of hepatitis vaccinations. “If all the restaurant industry could get together and give everybody a shot, I would not keep making money for clients off of ‘hep. A’ cases.”

Marler also suggested that not enough business organizations make food safety a priority and instead treat it as a “stepchild.”

“Yeah, it is ‘important.’ But [only] like window dressing, and there are other more important things,” he said.

“People talk a lot about a food-safety culture and having the ability to hold up food safety as a paramount thing or at least parallel to profits,” Marler said. “I think sometimes companies have a hard time doing that.”

Contact Robin Lee Allen at [email protected] [3].
Follow her on Twitter: @RobinLeeAllen [4].

Contact Alan J. Liddle at [email protected] [5].
Follow him on Twitter: @AJ_NRN [6].