In late October 2006 the small college town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, found itself infected. Within a week a small-scale E. coli outbreak was underway. By November 10, there were nine confirmed cases of E. coli all tracing back to the same McAlister’s Deli near the town’s university. The day the outbreaks are thought to have began, however, was also the day the restaurant was inspected by the local health department and given an A grade of 91 points. Something seemed to be amiss with the restaurant, the inspectors, and perhaps the industry as a whole.
Recently, food-safety issues are grabbing more headlines than ever. From Chapel Hill’s McAlister’s Deli to ConAgra’s Sylvester, Georgia, processing plant, the restaurant industry seems to have become a sitting duck in the fight against food-borne illnesses. But quick-serves aren’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. After surviving Jack in the Box’s deadly 1993 E. coli outbreak and Taco Bell’s recent shredded-lettuce scare, the fast-food industry has begun to educate itself in order to protect its customers and bottom line.
Director of Science and Regulatory Relations for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), Kristie Grzywinski, says areas like sanitation, supply-chain practices, and holding temperatures are all areas where contaminations are easily introduced. “Really a lot of it is just making sure you have good practices in your establishments,” she says.
Dr. Peter Snyder, Hospitality Institute of Technology & Management president, says one of those good practices is trusting your instincts when picking suppliers, especially for produce.
“If he’s stupid enough to come in a filthy truck that means there’s bad management,” he says. And that could mean trouble or even a potential outbreak for restaurants having their food supplied by the company. Most importantly, Snyder says only buy from suppliers who get their products from approved sources. He says going to the site to see the operation makes this decision easier. Also, he suggests scheduling food deliveries for off-peak hours so that there is ample time to inspect the food and packaging for problems and potential hazards.
In addition to securing safe and clean suppliers, quick-serves should also concentrate on holding temperatures when trying to avoid food-borne illnesses. Dr. Don Schaffner, a professor of microbiology at Rutgers University who has worked with the International Association for Food Protection, The Institute of Food Technologists, and the Society for Risk Analysis, emphasizes holding temperatures’ importance.