“Bride suing hotel after norovirus outbreak at wedding reception”
“Report: Hotel chef ‘most likely’ source of norovirus outbreak”
Each of these is an actual news headline from recent years.
Today, travelers expect the hotels they choose to offer food, whether it’s a full-service hotel with restaurants and banquet services, or a limited service hotel that offers snacks and microwaveable meals. To customers, the responsibility of ensuring that these food items are safe falls to you; and failing to ensure that standard operating procedures (SOPs), staff, and vendors are all adhering to food safety standards could leave your hotel at the center of headlines like these.
But with a myriad of services offered by hotels today, food safety often goes beyond the obvious risks. Every operation is unique, and risks can vary depending upon the food services provided. Even the smallest slip in one area could result in a serious food safety crisis for a property, or create ramifications for the entire brand if it’s a franchised or corporate-owned location of a larger chain.
While the risks are serious, there are a number of actionable steps that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of an incident at your hotels.
1. Conduct a thorough gap analysis to identify areas of potential risk. When considering a food safety program, you need to assess risks throughout the facility. Kitchens may initially seem like the only area of real risk, but the truth is there may be dozens of other opportunities for potential foodborne risks. Does your hotel offer room service? Serve food poolside? Have an in-room gift service that may leave food sitting out? Do you regularly check food pantry, snack areas, or mini-bars for potential issues with refrigeration or pest infestation? Are all of your food handlers and servers fully versed on food safety practices? Do you have an allergen awareness program? Are your cleaning SOPs for food service equipment followed and enforced? Do you have a receiving policy in place for food items? Do your vendors know your food safety standards? Are you partnering with any food delivery services that provide guests with meals? These are the types of questions you or a food safety partner should ask during a gap analysis.
2. Ensure that all staff members have enough training to know the risks. Kitchen workers, bartenders, and food handlers should all receive in-depth food safety training in order to be prepared to handle a variety of circumstances—the food safety risks for a buffet will differ from those for table service. Hotels that host meetings and special events also serve guests in high volume, which requires knowledge of food safety risks that occur in these situations, including temperature controls for high volume foods.
Food handlers and servers should know key food allergens, understand where potential allergy risks exist in menu items, and be able to answer customer questions about them. Food allergies don’t just cause discomfort—for some guests, they can be life-threatening. In addition to initial on-boarding, conduct regular training to not only keep staff up to speed on changes in operation, your menu, and food regulation, but also to continually remind them of proper food safety practices.
Signage can also help serve your team as a continual reminder about important food safety practices. That said, be aware that any sign in place long enough can become “part of the environment” for food workers and be overlooked. If using signage, keep it fresh so that employees don’t become “sign blind.”
Beyond staff that directly work with food, be sure that all of your staff members—from front desk to housekeeping—have a basic understanding of food safety and know where to go for help or assistance in an emergency. For example, housekeepers may play a role in delivering food gifts to rooms—but do they understand why it is dangerous for food to remain unrefrigerated for longer than four hours? Is there a policy in place to ensure checks on these deliveries? Or, if a guest were to complain about becoming sick from food, would the front desk staff know the proper procedures to follow? If someone becomes sick in the buffet area, does the janitorial staff know the proper procedures to take for cleanup to prevent others from becoming ill? These are all food safety-related practices that could protect your brand from a serious illness incident.
3. Enforce a workplace illness policy, especially for food handlers. In recent years, many foodborne illness outbreaks linked to hotels have been identified as starting with a food handler who worked while ill. Norovirus, which is highly contagious, can be spread easily when food workers who are sick handle food and beverages. A food handler with Hepatitis A can also put people at risk; and anyone exposed to Hepatitis A may require a course of vaccination. These foodborne illness incidents put guests at risk, open properties up to liability, and could expose your brand to negative publicity.
Be sure that the staff understands the risk that an ill food handler poses to the operation. It can be very impactful to talk to them about the human costs of the decision to work while ill. Beyond sickening customers, they could also sicken co-workers, causing them to be out of work, and leaving your team short-staffed. A foodborne illness incident could put the hotel’s food operations or entire property in danger of being closed by the health department or regulatory agency, which could result in many people being out of work for a period of time—lasting days or even weeks. In that same vein, a foodborne illness incident could create the opportunity for lawsuits, which, if severe enough, could put the hotel out of business.
This is an especially important discussion to have with workers who do not have the opportunity to earn paid sick leave. Often, these workers come to work ill because they can’t afford to take the time off, not realizing that their sickness could be putting so much more in jeopardy.
4. Utilize third-party auditors as an ally for your business. Partnering with a third-party auditing company can help ensure that brand and regulatory food safety practices are being adhered to in every location. Third-party assessments provide an objective viewpoint to spot any potential risks early on and recommend a corrective action plan. The best third-party companies also have their fingers on the pulse of the overall hospitality industry and can provide constructive insights into how your business is performing in food safety when compared with other hospitality industry benchmarks.
It’s no secret that many health departments are stretched thin. You might say, “I get inspected by the health department periodically, isn’t that sufficient?” These inspections may not actually be frequent enough to really identify problems and make organizational change. Three or four third-party assessments a year can help track progress and drive long-term behavior change for your entire team.
Third-party assessments can also complement the training demand that many hospitality operations find themselves under. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, turnover in the hospitality sector is nearly 73 percent—highlighting how most operations are hiring new staff members regularly. Thorough third-party auditors can help coach team members new and old on company’s standards and critical food safety practices, serving to reinforce training already conducted.
Some third-party assessment companies can even extend their assessments to evaluate operational elements of the property as well—the pool, spa, lobby, parking lot, meeting rooms, etc.—to judge items such as cleanliness, safety, staff interactions, and more.
With the hotel guest experience continually evolving, the number of areas in which hotels are exposed to food safety risks will only increase. Training and attention to food safety risks can no longer be isolated to the kitchen. Anywhere, any person, and any equipment that is along the path food travels in your operation allows for potential incursion of foodborne pathogens or an opportunity for food to become compromised. To safeguard your business, consider implementing a robust food safety program that includes a gap analysis, staff training, a well-developed and enforced illness policy, and third-party assessments. By taking these proactive steps, your hotel is setup for success to ensure guests have a stay that is memorable for all the right reasons.