There's no denying that fast casual/fast food restaurants have seen a surge of foodborne illness outbreaks recently. Over the past few months, some of our nation's biggest chains — including McDonald's, Chipotle and Panera — have experienced frightening food safety breaches, which sickened hundreds of guests.
The fast-food industry was born from a 20th-century idea— to create inexpensive, efficient, consistent food. Price and speed were key selling points. The foods were often fried, high-fat, and processed, but consumers ate it, unconcerned with nutritional value or "bad calories."
Things have changed, though. Today, many people are seeking fresher, healthier food, focusing more on salads and produce vs. processed foods. As Americans demand healthier products, restaurants and other food businesses are responding with fresher ingredients. And this is a big reason that we've seen a huge uptick in foodborne illnesses at restaurants and retailers lately. It's ironic that produce and other fresh foods are healthier for consumers to eat, but they carry more food safety risk.
Panera's recent foodborne illness outbreak (inadvertently serving romaine lettuce tainted with E.coli) stemmed from a supply chain issue. Similarly, McDonald's just had a huge, multi-state foodborne illness outbreak, caused by contaminated salad ingredients. And Chipotle is now as well known for serving fresh foods as it is for repeated foodborne illness outbreaks.
Chipotle is emblematic of the problem — food poisonings at the beleaguered burrito chain will keep happening. The chain is committed to working with fresher food, which means they inherently face more risks. The ready-to-eat items they prepare and serve (e.g., fresh salsas, lettuce, avocados, etc.) aren't cooked, so there's no "kill step" where heat could destroy harmful bacteria. This means products tainted with bacteria like E.coli could sicken (or even kill) consumers. The fresh produce they serve — tomatoes, corn, etc. — also has more stops along the supply chain, which means more opportunities for contamination. Bottom line: consumers who eat fresh foods will face a higher foodborne illness risk than they'd have eating burgers and fries.
People are eating healthier, but are getting food poisoning more frequently. This is evident in the numerous foodborne illness outbreaks at major fast food/fast casual chains over the spring and summer. These incidents, caused by contaminated produce, sickened guests who were looking for fresher, healthier options than the "typical" fast food fare.
Additionally, we've recently seen widespread contamination (and subsequent recalls) around fresh foods, including romaine lettuce and pre-cut produce, being sold at grocery stores and other retail locations.
People within the food service industry should be highly concerned about the increased risk of foodborne illness when serving fresher foods. As an industry, we all must work collaboratively to protect our foods, customers and businesses. Therefore, all food businesses should:
- Rely on technology. The newest tech tools — such as sensors — are highly effective in keeping foods safer and reducing (or eliminating) human error that could cause food safety breaches. Restaurants should utilize these tools to keep fresher foods safer. And since fresher foods have more stops on the supply chain, food manufactures should re-examine their systems, changing to more automated options. This, too, will significantly reduce human error that causes many food safety issues.
- Change their food safety mindset. Many food businesses use a "top-down" approach, where leadership dictates the need for food safety, then hopes their employees follow the protocols. Instead, they should shift their mindset to adopt a "knowledge approach." If leaders do a better job training all employees about the importance of food safety — and explaining the reasoning behind the protocols — they'll have better outcomes. Make food safety part of the company culture and ensure that all employees understand that it's a non-negotiable priority.
- Use data to drive decisions. Even in today's high-tech culture, many restaurants do haphazard, random safety checks. Their data collection "system" is actually just a long, tedious paper and pen safety check, which their employees often skip (or falsify) because they're too busy or uninterested in the task. But, if food businesses collected safety data on a regular — and more accurate — basis, they could make smarter decisions and get ahead of potential problems before they become liabilities.
- Elevate their systems. The vast majority of food businesses still use antiquated paper and pencil systems to manage food safety standards, including inspections, audits and training, and that's a dangerous practice. Paper records make it easy for employees to cheat and falsify records, which puts foods, consumers and businesses at higher risk. Instead, food businesses must get past their "fear of change," ditching their clipboards and embracing technological tools instead. Today's tech solutions are affordable, attainable and user-friendly. Transitioning to a digital system won't be an overwhelming or intimidating process, as many believe. The first step could be as simple as providing digital safety checklists and/or food safety training reminders on employees' smartphones.
Food safety is serious business and should be taken seriously. Many restaurants have shifted to fresher foods – now they need to shift to more modern tools to keep these foods safer. It's in everyone's best interest to utilize everything at our disposal — including modern tools, data-driven decisions and more modern mindsets to keep our foods, customers and businesses safer.