The COVID-19 pandemic was the start of an influx of challenges for food retail and restaurant establishments, with lingering effects leading to labor shortages, supply chain disruptions, and inflationary pressures. This operational shift has forced these establishments to reassess current food safety standards and procedures and adjust where needed.
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 600 million people fall ill after consuming contaminated food every year. A single outbreak can cost a restaurant business upwards of two million dollars according to a 2018 study published in Public Health Reports and, with at least 31 different types of foodborne pathogens to worry about, food safety protocols should be at the top of every priority list for restaurant establishments.
To better protect customers, employees and restaurant owners and operators need to have confidence in their food safety programs. A proper food safety program doesn’t just “pass the test.” A solid food safety program ensures proper food safety practices happen every day, focuses on high-risk issues, and has buy-in from all employee levels, including from senior leadership.
To achieve this, restaurant owners and managers should be able to answer “yes” to the following three questions:
1. Is Food Safety Practiced Consistently?
According to Steritech assessment data, restaurant brands consistently experience a higher number of food safety issues on particular days of the week. The specific days of the week vary by brand, but virtually all brands have at least one day of the week when their issue count is consistently and significantly higher.
The data revealed that the location’s worst day often corresponded with the days when more personnel were present. This indicates that the issue is not always caused by a labor gap, but a leadership gap. The common factor seems to be that leadership is focused on something other than food prep on certain days: delivery days, inventory shifts, manager meetings or other tasks. It also correlates to the experience level of the leadership present; for example, issue counts often rise on the general manager’s regular day off.
The difference between a restaurant’s best day of the week and their worst day is typically between 12% and 18%, but for some brands, that variance is more than 30%. Restaurant owners and managers need to recognize and pay close attention to those “opportunity days” to ensure that proper and consistent food safety practices are being executed at every shift.
2. Is There a Plan in Place to Handle High-Risk Activities?
High-risk activities will be different for every establishment, but it’s likely that every brand has a few. Being able to identify which activities have the strongest links to foodborne illness for a particular restaurant is the first step toward handling those concerns. Some common high-risk activities include, but are not limited to:
- Cooling, reheating, and hot and cold handling;
- Cross-contamination during storage and handling practices;
- Cleaning, sanitizing, and handwashing; and
- Date marking and timely disposal of expired products.
Once a restaurant’s specific high-risk activities have been identified, the next step should be to implement documented food safety management systems for each critical process. A documented food safety management system should cover three parts: the procedures for each critical risk, the training to implement those procedures, and defined monitoring of the implemented procedures.
At first, creating a food safety management plan for each critical issue may appear to be a daunting task, but it’s a task that will better protect employees, customers, and the restaurant. When creating this food safety plan, take it one step at a time. Start with a task that will generate immediate success to get the ball rolling, and then use that positive momentum to further expand the plan.
3. Do Leadership and Management Understand Food Safety Protocols?
Building an effective restaurant food safety program requires engagement and buy-in from all stakeholders. Recent FDA studies found approximately 60% fewer critical issues cited when the person in charge could knowledgeably discuss their food safety management systems.
When food safety programs focus exclusively on location-level employees, the senior leadership team is left out of a crucial part of business operations. In successful organizations, senior company leaders drive processes and programs that keep the entire organization continuously improving.
Food retail and restaurant operators should train leadership and management teams to support food safety programs by practicing “S.A.F.E.” measures.
- Say: What managers say can provide vital reminders to keep food safety in everyone’s awareness every day. Managers and leaders can take simple food safety reminders a step further by also communicating the “why” behind each job. This will help to reinforce the importance of each task to front-line staff.
- Act: The way managers act is also a critical component of effective food safety programs. What leaders do—or fail to do—sends a message to everyone who sees them about the establishment’s food safety values. Simple actions such as hand washing when an employee enters the kitchen, wearing hair restraints, checking temperature logs, or reviewing recent inspection reports will illustrate the importance of those daily tasks to front-line staff.
- Feedback: Leaders are also responsible for being receptive to feedback from those they lead, but this is often overlooked. When leaders and managers can both provide feedback and be open to receiving feedback from their team members, it opens the door to positive two-way communication, which also helps foster a self-sustaining culture of food safety.
- Encourage: There is great power in encouraging positive behaviors. Traditional food safety programs typically focus on the bad findings. Instead, use positive recognition to reinforce good behaviors and send the message that excellent food safety will be rewarded. Positive recognition boosts morale and creates pride, which ultimately embeds itself into the culture. It also creates a platform for employees to receive constructive feedback when it becomes necessary.
Whether managing a single, family-owned restaurant, or a multi-location franchise establishment, creating a positive food safety culture is essential. In this new era of limited staff, high turnover rates, consistent supply chain demands and various other challenges impeding the restaurant industry, owners and operators certainly have a tough job ahead.
A system of strong procedures, training, and monitoring can ensure consistent food safety every day. Pair this with S.A.F.E. food safety practices by leadership at all levels to help build a solid food safety culture for everyone involved.
Boyles is vice president of food safety at Steritech.
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