When an e-coli outbreak last fall sickened 71 people in four Eastern states who ate at Taco Bell units, the Irvine, Calif.-based company reacted fast to let people know it was determined to improve the safety of the food supply chain.
"Going forward, we commit our customers to work with our internationally recognized experts in food safety as we lead an industry effort to improve safety standards at the farm level to prevent this from happening again at our restaurants, or wherever customers may buy their food," president Greg Creed said in a December press release.
The quick response of the chain, which boasts 5,800 units in the United States, is just one indication that the industry is not taking tainted food lightly.
"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. For example, she said, the produce industry needs a push.
An upcoming produce food safety conference in Monterey, Calif., will bring together various produce associations, which will discuss action that needs to be taken to improve the handling of produce in the supply chain. (Lettuce is believed to have been the source of the E. coli outbreak at Taco Bell.)
"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, that much more needs to be done."
And it's hard to determine what the smoking gun is when it comes to tainted food, 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.
Apart from the efforts being made by industry associations, restaurants are taking steps on their own as well. Since the Taco Bell crisis, more restaurants are voluntarily seeking certification in ServSafe, a food safety training program from the National Restaurant Association, according to Rick J. Sampson, president and chief executive of the New York State Restaurant Association. That state's department of health uses ServSafe as the standard, he said.
"We're starting to fill those classes," he said. "We're certainly seeing an increase for a number of reasons: one, to protect their businesses; and two, to give their consumers piece of mind."
Restaurants also 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 who are up front with food safety instead of burying it," said Donna Rosenbaum, president of S.T.O.P. (Safe Tables Our Priority), an organization that works to promote food safety and prevent food-borne 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, when, tainted meat from the now 300-unit fast food chain in San Diego killed four and sickened hundreds. One of those who died, in fact, 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, adding that showing the public a company is addressing the issue makes good business sense.
When patrons "see the restaurant thinking about it, they see it as a place they can trust," she said. Consumers also have become savvier about food safety and often approach the restaurant 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. And because of that increased awareness, restaurants can use food safety initiatives as a marketing tool. One restaurant in Hawaii, for example, has let it be known that it's 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."