As consumers take increased precautions to protect their safety during the coronavirus pandemic, they can take some solace that restaurants have to follow a detailed health and food safety protocol as a regular part of doing business – and that the transmission method of COVID-19 doesn’t change the efficacy of this protocol. Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, told the Huffington Post that because coronavirus infection occurs primarily through the respiratory system, the chance of getting COVID-19 from food is extremely low. “The respiratory virus risk in restaurants is really more about being in the same location as a lot of people, some of whom can be depositing the virus on surfaces like tables, doors, menus, and managing that with a hand washing and alcohol-based sanitizer regime is an effective step to reduce risks of both COVID-19 and Influenza.” Restricting restaurant sales to curbside takeout and delivery reduces those respiratory risks even further.
Amid the spread of COVID-19, there have been indirect impacts to food suppliers. Specifically, the FDA is temporarily suspending routine surveillance inspections of food manufacturers and handlers. According to a report in The Counter, “while FDA inspections may make up a relatively small component of the broader food safety ecosystem, the agency’s decision represents a fresh blow to an interconnected system of food safety checks that is already under immense pressure. A safe food supply depends on well-trained workers, internal and third-party audits, and domestic inspections.” When one area of the food supply chain is weakened, foodservice businesses need to be able to understand where gaps exist and take steps to fill them where possible.
If you have invested in systems and sensors to monitor aspects of your restaurant’s food safety protocol, don’t let them give you a false sense of security. The technology is only helpful if it is used to support careful food safety practices already in use. As ComplianceMate advises, make sure you follow up on any inconsistent temperature readings. If your cold-holding equipment has a built-in display that conflicts with the readings from your new temperature sensors, for example, test the temperature with a third sensor to confirm the result. If you automatically trust the built-in reading, you may get an inaccurate result as the in-unit thermostats often fail before the equipment does – and placing trust in the sensors can cause you to overlook potential problems with the new equipment. #foodsafety
As the coronavirus has spread and restaurants have had to transition to a takeout-only model, what are restaurants to do to protect themselves and the customers they serve – and to somehow keep business coming in? Despite the many tech advances that have swept the industry, restaurants – until very recently – have been social places where people are on the front lines. A recent Restaurant Business report, which includes advice from a law firm specializing in employment issues, advises clear communication with employees in several areas: share your plan with them (and make sure it covers employee concerns such as your sick leave policy and your plan of operation during school closures) and provide training to ensure everyone knows what procedures to follow if they develop symptoms of COVID-19 or are diagnosed with it. Day to day, increase your efforts to sanitize door handles and kitchen and bathroom surfaces more often. Some operators are placing hand sanitizer at their building entrances, as well as outside the restroom and at stations in the back of the house. And while delivery was once considered a nice-to-have service, it’s now critical. Even if you don’t currently offer mobile ordering tech, now is the time to adjust your menu and offer a simple takeout menu that can be picked up outside of your establishment or dropped off outside a customer’s door for contactless delivery. Right now food delivery is considered a public service for people who are elderly, vulnerable and isolated, so promote on social media and to neighborhood news groups that you are open and ready to help, and provide your menu and contact information. Finally, encourage people to pick up the phone and call you – it’s old-fashioned but people are missing the social connections that restaurants have long been able to provide. You can provide a valuable way for people maintain those community ties as the industry pulls through this time of uncertainty.
After you deliver food safety training to your staff, how much time passes before they put the lessons to use? Ecolab’s Bob Sherwood says his company has found that humans will forget 75 percent of the new information they acquire unless they use it within the first week of learning it. He suggests using a 70-20-10 rule for helping training lessons stick: 10 percent of the learning should be reserved for more formal classroom settings, 20 percent for conversations and other social interactions, and 70 percent for the application of lessons on the job. Do you have training mechanisms in place – whether through tech tools or in-person lessons – that ensure your staff apply new knowledge soon after they learn it?
Are dangerous bacteria lurking in your kitchen towels? Prevent the spread of germs by sanitizing and storing towels correctly between uses. The most recent USDA Food Code advises towels to be held between uses in a chemical sanitizer solution in the specified concentration. Ensure the towels and solution are not soiled and don’t contain any food debris. Used towels should be laundered daily in a mechanical washer, a sink used only for washing cloths or a food preparation sink that has been cleaned and sanitized. Refer to the food code for a full list of procedures to keep reusable towels free from contaminants.
Operators are well aware that issues such as kitchen pests and improper handwashing can lead to food safety problems in restaurants. But what about having a lack of available financial credit? A report from the software company Checkit mentions this as a major food safety problem in small restaurants. It cites an example of a restaurant that received an unexpectedly large gas bill totaling approximately $40,000, then struggled to make the payment, causing a succession of kitchen infrastructure problems that led to serious food safety hazards. Though it may not be every day that a restaurant receives a bill for tens of thousands of dollars, it happens, particularly when a business hasn’t budgeted for regular maintenance on a property. If you face a large expense, don’t have ready access to credit and must then direct resources away from critical business processes in order to pay bills, food safety is sure to be at risk. What sort of emergency budget preparations have you made to protect your business from surprise expenses?
Compostable packaging for take-out food is on the rise – but what about the packaging that comes into your restaurant from suppliers? In the coming months, packaging technology companies will be generating more compostable alternatives to the plastic film and pouches that are used to package meat, along with other proteins and prepared foods. Fast Company reports that one startup called Primitives is fine-tuning smart compostable packaging that can respond to its environment and detect safety problems. It could mean that in the not-too-distant future, operators won’t have to look to “sell by” or “use by” dates on packaging but can instead note that if a food’s packaging or a label on the packaging has changed color, it may have been tampered with or reached a temperature that has made the food unsafe to consume.
While at the time of this writing fewer than 20 cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed in the U.S., the illness had still created a ripple effect: Across the country, many Chinese restaurants have taken a hit due to the panic associated with the illness. Even if you don’t operate a Chinese restaurant, you can likely appreciate the challenge of trying to manage a sudden health crisis that threatens your brand – or even your entire restaurant category. The widespread nature of supply chains, along with the increased risk of viruses and weather-related crop damage, mean your restaurant could face a brand crisis at any time. It’s critical to have a contingency plan for responding to such events so you don’t have to create a plan mid-crisis. In a report from the Vending Times, Steritech’s Paula Herald suggests brands should take such steps as securing food supplies and distribution agreements, developing a food security plan to protect their operation from theft in the case of shortages, reviewing and refining their sick-leave policies, developing a plan to manage widespread absenteeism including limits on public transport, cross-training staff so workers can easily step in for others who are out, and keeping (and discussing with employees) up-to-date-communication plans and staff contact lists so they’re not struggling to get in touch with their team during a health crisis. Are you confident in your current crisis response plan – and in your team’s ability to carry it out?
The universe of Internet of Things devices used to monitor restaurant processes and alert operators to potential problems continues to grow – and even pest activity can be tracked by a network of sensors. The pest control company Rentokil says the top pests posing problems for restaurants and commercial kitchens are rodents, cockroaches, flies and stored-product pests that infest and contaminate food. Since some of these pests can make themselves scarce when your team isn’t around, using technology to track their activity can give you a clearer picture of the types of pests you’re dealing with, how your pest activity varies throughout the year and what emerging risks your business might face if you don’t take preventive action. That data then helps automate your reports related to pests, along with the steps you must take to stay in compliance as a foodservice organization.