Modern restaurateurs today are facing challenges no other generation has faced, thanks to COVID-19 shutdowns, supply chain disruptions, labor shortages, menu labeling and food safety issues. Food safety is an important concern because any cross-contamination, cross-contact, mishandling or food-borne illness can sicken customers and become a public relations disaster. It is industry’s primary responsibility to ensure that the food it sells and serves to consumers is safe.
The more obstacles the industry faces, the more difficult these responsibilities become. In my experience, when manpower issues arise, crew training and education are the first things to suffer. There are several reasons for this. Time and money are two of the most important factors.
Staff turnover has been higher than ever since the COVID pandemic, with hourly turnover hovering around an incredible 194% in the restaurant industry. It is impossible to keep track of the training of all these employees as they come and go unless you have reliable systems. A pencil, paper and spreadsheets will not suffice. Accurate and reliable tracking requires digital technology. Without investing in training, it is not a question of knowing if, but when the disaster will occur and what the collateral damage will be. It could mean shutting down your business, as evidenced by Chi Chi’s, which was once ranked number one fast-casual Mexican restaurant in the United States.
Chi Chi’s had been at the top of its game, being named Mexican restaurant chain of the year by Restaurants and Institutions Magazine three times from 1993 to 1995. In 2003, more than 555 confirmed cases of hepatitis A were linked to green onions served at Chi Chi’s. . Four people have died from their illness. The hepatitis A outbreak was a debacle for the brand and they couldn’t recover from it. Less than a year later, Chi Chi is permanently closed.
Today, penalties for foodborne illness outbreaks can mean more than making customers sick and shutting down your business. Imagine being fined $25 million by the Department of Justice (DOJ). Chipotle has been accused of violating federal law by tampering with food for the seven unprecedented outbreaks of foodborne illnesses that occurred and sickened more than 1,100 people between 2015 and 2018. These are largest fine ever imposed in a food safety case.
The DOJ has sent loud and clear messages over the past few years to those in the industry who have not taken food safety seriously. For example, Stewart Parnell, a former executive of Peanut Corp. of America, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the national salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009 that killed nine people and sickened 714.
ConAgra Foods pleaded guilty to a criminal misdemeanor and paid more than $11 million in fines for an outbreak of salmonella linked to peanut butter in 2006 and 2007. Former Iowa egg manager Austin” Jack” DeCoster, and his son, Peter, were sentenced to several months in prison. and were fined $100,000 for their role in a 2010 salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands of people. The family business, Quality Egg, was fined $6.8 million.
Over time, the penalties have become more costly and severe. It is important to note that although there have been multiple outbreaks and numerous illnesses in multiple Chipotles, no deaths have been reported and no prison sentences have been assigned. Chipotle has been very sensitive to their situation. They implemented new sanitation procedures and new food safety training procedures for all restaurant employees, changed its preparation procedures to avoid potential cross-contamination, started using central kitchens to prepare certain items instead of doing so in individual stores, implemented a new sick leave policy, and announced an automatic shutdown if an employee or customer vomited in a restaurant. They have also invested in digital technology. These are just a few of Chipotle’s many efforts to revive its damaged brand image and increase safety in its restaurants.
Short-staffed and overworked employees who take shortcuts often lead to food safety issues. Chipotle employees who were interviewed about these outbreaks said exactly that. Now, years later, almost every American restaurant is understaffed and almost every employee is overworked. It’s more important than ever to do your due diligence. Make sure your team is trained and you have documents to prove it.
Food safety training and education has never been more essential for the restaurant industry than it is today. Protecting your communities, customers, employees, and brand is critical to success; therefore, investing in employee training and education is the wisest investment a foodservice establishment can make.
Restaurants should take advantage of digital software that can track employee hire dates, active employment dates, regulatory compliance certifications, in-house training certificates and expiration dates and keep copies certificates in their files. These systems can save employee hours, keep all relevant data in one place, enable downloading of data from spreadsheets, reduce food costs, increase accuracy, enhance security and compliance, minimize risks, etc With the FDA’s emphasis on digital technology in the new era of smarter food safety, these platforms are just what you need to improve morale, trust, food safety culture and your global operations. Digital technology is not a fad; it’s a worthwhile investment to keep your employees, guests and business safe.