Reducing Food Safety Errors and Violations

The importance of Leadership, Incident Reporting, and Error Management

By Priyanko Guchait, PhD Associate Professor Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, University of Houston | April 21, 2019

Restaurants are associated with 50% of all foodborne illness outbreaks each year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2015 ). Moreover, due to lifestyle changes, increasing numbers of people in westernized countries, such as the United States, eat in restaurants.

The most common risk factors that affect food safety in all food and beverage establishments are well documented as follows: failure to cook food correctly; failure to hold food at the right temperature; poor personal hygiene, contaminated equipment, chemical storage, and the use of food from unsafe sources (United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 2009 ). Moreover, handling food by a sick employee (65%) and bare-hand contact with food (35%) were the most commonly identified contributing factors. The food service industry has interventions in place to ensure the safety of food; however, human errors are often the underlying cause of foodborne illness outbreaks.

For instance, in order to hold hot food at the correct temperature (135°F), a calibrated thermometer at a holding station does the job. If a restaurant employee notices that the thermometer reads 125°F and does not report it to his/her manager, then the possibility of a customer becoming sick increases as the food becomes time- and temperature-abused. Similarly, if a sick employee does not follow protocol and comes to work sick, there is a heightened possibility that his/her co-workers and restaurant patrons will contract the illness.

Food safety related errors in restaurants have been shown to be of significance during post-outbreak analysis by the health department (according to health inspection reports). For instance, during the 2015 Chipotle outbreak, investigators found that on multiple occasions employees came to work sick which led to their co-workers and customers becoming ill. Similarly, previous health inspection reports showed that food was time- and temperature-abused (i.e. not cooked to and/or held at the correct temperature), the restaurant facilities were not well maintained and cleaned in a timely manner, and foods were obtained from unapproved suppliers.

Food service establishments and restaurants play a significant responsibility in preventing foodborne illnesses. Though absolute food safety is most likely unattainable, the foodservice industry should continually strive for this goal while maintaining quality. In general, food handler training is seen as one strategy whereby food safety can be increased, offering long-term benefits to the food industry as a whole.

However, current knowledge-based training may not be enough to ensure or change certain safety behaviors. Theoretically, knowledge alone is insufficient to trigger preventive practices. Often, there is no relationship between the knowledge level of staff and their premises' inspection rating.

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