When Chipotle had to manage an E. coli outbreak in 2015, its actions paved the way for 2020. To earn customers’ trust, it overhauled its food preparation practices – and in the process created a solid foundation to operate during the challenging climate that is 2020. The protocols introduced, which Fortune said included washing hands between tasks, placing hand sanitizer at the door and changing air filtration systems, sound like a list of COVID-19 reopening guidelines. While the brand has made other operational changes during the pandemic, those changes have focused on paid sick leave, employee compensation and delivery tracking – while other brands have had to implement more sweeping changes. Could your restaurant’s longtime safety record help you create a better blueprint for safety now?
If the rapid spread of the coronavirus in recent weeks has proven anything, it is this: It is more important than ever to respect and reinforce the steps individuals can take to contain potential outbreaks. While the coronavirus is an extreme example of what can happen during an outbreak, virus outbreaks are likely to become an increasingly regular part of life as global warming contributes to a rise in new pathogens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While these pathogens may increase in variety and complexity, it will continue to be critical for people to follow a couple of simple practices to limit the spread of illness. As a physician and journalist who covered the SARS outbreak in China wrote recently in the New York Times, washing hands frequently and not coming to work when you are ill are the most important takeaways to remember when preventing the spread of pathogens. In addition, a Guardian report advises taking such precautions as covering your nose and mouth with a tissue (or with your elbow) when you cough or sneeze, then discarding the tissue and washing hands immediately after. Do your training procedures emphasize the most important steps workers can take to prevent the spread of illness in your facility?
Proper handwashing can go far in preventing food contamination, as well as containing a virus during cold and flu season. As it pertains to the foodservice industry, the CDC advises people to wash their hands at these times to prevent the spread of germs: before, during and after food prep, before eating, before and after treating a cut or wound, after using the toilet, after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, and after touching garbage.
This tech can check. Poorly washed hands are responsible for nearly half of all foodborne illnesses, Restaurant Technology News reports. A technology designed to minimize that threat has made Time magazine’s 2019 list of best inventions. Pathspot technology scans hands for signs of foodborne illness, making it possible to monitor, measure and change handwashing practices within a restaurant before a person with contaminated hands handles food – and to provide management with data about its workers’ handwashing practices so they know where to focus training efforts. Pathspot technology has been used in restaurant and foodservice brands since 2017.
As cold and flu season threatens to impact your staff, make sure you’re minimizing the spread of germs after handwashing. Statefoodsafety.com advises that after washing hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, it’s best to turn off the faucet with a paper towel and then dry hands with either a paper towel or hand dryer. Avoid using a cloth towel, which can contaminate your hands and spread germs.
Does your kitchen team use gloves when preparing and serving food? They can give people a false sense of security when it comes to cleanliness, so make sure your employees follow the proper steps when wearing them. As Statefoodsafety.com says, gloves are not magic – they can become contaminated just like hands can – and they are never a substitute for hand washing. Change gloves every four hours (at least), after returning from a break and when moving to a new task. Wash hands before donning a new pair.
Hopefully, your employees know to wash their hands after using a restroom. But bacteria lurk in places all over a restaurant: Door handles, money, tablet and smartphone touchscreens, salt shakers and other tableware, computer keyboards, menus, and kitchen equipment and other items such as cutting boards and towels are key culprits. Outside of the restroom, make sure your team has a culture of regular handwashing with soap and water, then alcohol-based sanitizer (as a bonus, not a substitute for the first step). Then reinforce it regularly. It’s easy for even a careful employee to overlook handwashing during busy periods.
A study by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service that observed participants cooking in a test kitchen found that 97 percent of attempts to wash hands failed. That resulted in 48 percent of participants cross-contaminating spice jars by transferring harmless microorganisms that act much like human pathogens. (The USDA reports that Campylobacter and Salmonella, bacteria found in poultry, may survive on food contact surfaces for up to four and 32 hours, respectively.) Another 5 percent of participants in the study transferred bacteria to salads they prepared. It’s worth a reminder: To adequately wash hands, wet them with warm or cool running water, apply soap and for 20 seconds rub hands together vigorously, washing both sides of each hand, between fingers and over fingertips and wrists. Rinse and then dry hands and wrists with a towel, which you should then use to turn off the faucet.
If you have new or temporary staff on your team, it’s a good time to give a refresher course on avoiding the spread of colds and flu, as well as other germs that can cause foodborne illness. The National Restaurant Association advises operators to provide a handwashing demo to staff, focus on the nail beds and under the fingernails where bacteria is easily trapped, and mention the need for scrubbing, rinsing and complete drying of hands to avoid cross-contamination. Hand sanitizer is a good final step after handwashing but does not replace it. Make sure your food handlers know when and how to report their symptoms of illness — and ensure your managers keep staff informed of the reporting requirements of foodborne illness symptoms, with emphasis on the need to report vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, sore throat with fever, or infected cuts or burns with pus on hands or wrists. Finally, build a culture in which your team feels comfortable reporting their illness symptoms. You can foster this environment by having regular conversations about how to report symptoms and what follow-up actions to take to prevent the spread of foodborne illness, as well as by placing posters around your facility to remind employees of their responsibility to be forthcoming about symptoms they or other staff experience.
Are you in food safety denial?
In the U.S. alone, foodborne illness causes 76,000 illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths every year — and they’re all preventable. So why do they occur? According to food safety expert Francine Shaw, much of the problem comes down to denial. Some operators and employees deny there is a problem with the industry or that an operation’s safety protocols play a significant role in preventing it. Others can’t see beyond the up-front costs of technology and how it could offset the debilitating expense of a food safety crisis down the line. In her years in the industry, Shaw reports having seen widespread disregard for basic food safety protocols in restaurants, a desire by company leaders to have employees get just enough training to pass a test (without deeper thought about what it might mean to the consumer or the business), and an aversion to third-party inspections that could help a business commit to and sustain the kinds of practices that could prevent a foodborne illness outbreak. If any of this sounds familiar, Shaw says it’s important to revamp your corporate food safety culture, update your food safety plans and implement technology and other protective measures in your business. Technology can help simplify many processes, allowing you to deliver training, create a long-term record to back up your safety practices, and eliminate paper-and-pencil tracking systems that are easy to abuse and lose. There are now about twice as many food recalls as there were 10 years ago, and while many cite technology as the reason these problems can be identified quickly after the fact, technology could be used more readily to prevent them. But first, you need the food safety culture in place to reinforce your commitment to these changes.