Tag Archives: foodborne illness

Romaine Lettuce Outbreak: We Knew It Would Get Bad Quickly

By Maria Fontanazza
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This year’s multistate outbreak of E.coli O157:H7 infections linked to romaine lettuce affected 210 people, killing five. Although the outbreak was officially declared over by the end of June, questions still remain as to the exact source. Given the widespread nature of the outbreak and the speed with which illnesses occurred, there are many lessons to be learned from the case.

During last week’s annual Food Safety Consortium, industry stakeholders from the FDA, CDC and produce associations gathered to discuss agency action upon learning of the outbreak and where there is room for improvement.

The investigation began in April 2018 when the New Jersey Department of Health contacted the CDC about a cluster of E.coli O157:H7 illnesses from people who said they ate salads at various locations of the same restaurant chain. Three days later, the agency was able to confirm eight O157 isolates from six states with the same patterns using PulseNet. And five days after that, the CDC posted a notice on its website about the investigation of 17 cases across seven states.

“We knew right away that this was going to get bad and that it would get bad quickly,” said Matthew Wise, deputy branch chief for outbreak response at the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch of the CDC. “We saw illnesses ramp up quickly.” He added that the agency saw a lot of illness subclusters, all with romaine lettuce as the common ingredient.

The epidemiological evidence clearly indicated chopped romaine lettuce, and it appeared that all the affected romaine was coming from the Yuma, Arizona growing region, noted Stic Harris, director of the Coordinated Outbreak Response & Evaluation Network at FDA. But then things got even more confusing, as an Alaskan correctional facility was also investigating a cluster of cases. This allowed the agency to trace the source directly back to Harrison Farms as the sole supplier to the correctional facility. However, as the multi-agency investigation continued, they uncovered that the source was not just one farm. “There were three dozen farms in the Yuma region that supplied romaine lettuce,” said Harris, adding that we may never know which exact farm, and even if it was one farm, that was the source of the outbreak.

(left to Right) Stic Harris, FDA; Matt Wise, CDC; Dan Sutton, Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange; Scott Horsfall, California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement

During June, July and August, the FDA sent a multidisciplinary team of 16-18 people to conduct an environmental assessment of the affected area. Upon taking 111 samples, they found 13 different Shiga toxin-producing E. coli strains, but only three matched the strain of the outbreak. Water from 14 locations, including discharge, reservoir and canal water, was also tested. The environmental assessment found pervasive contamination in the water. But here was the big problem, said Harris: “There was no smoking gun. We don’t know how the E.coli got into the water, and we don’t know how the water got onto the lettuce.” He added that additional research is needed, and that government and non-government work must continue to identify the source.

There are several challenges associated with the complexity of this type of produce outbreak, said Harris and Wise:

  • The production lot information disappears at the point of service
  • Having a commingled product hinders traceback
  • Records present a challenge because agencies try to look at each company and their individual records, and every company has their own way of doing things—this takes time
  • The breadth of the impacted area—trying to do an environmental assessment for that area was staggering work
  • People who eat lettuce eat it often
  • Many people don’t remember what type of lettuce they ate
  • The product has a short shelf life
  • Communication: The packaging isn’t transparent on where it’s grown

Scott Horsfall, CEO, California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, chimed in on the challenges posed by the complexity of the outbreak. “If you compare these numbers with the 2016 spinach outbreak…they’re very similar [in the] total number of illnesses [and] number of states involved. But in [the spinach outbreak], it led to a specific farm. What we saw this time was very different.”

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One of the large successes in dealing with the outbreak is that the agencies issued public warnings quickly, said Wise. The produce industry also came together to form the Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force. In addition, FDA is expanding its sampling for the coming harvests, according to Harris. “I think that in terms of the speed of the environmental assessment, we need to be quicker with that. We apparently hadn’t done one in quite a long time at FDA,” he said.

Harris and Wise also stressed that for industry to work more effectively together, they need to work with the FDA and CDC before there is an outbreak.

“This outbreak was a frustrating experience for all of us,” said Horsfall. “We have to communicate more and better when we can. And as an industry, stop these outbreaks from happening.”

FDA: 172 Ill, 1 Death, Romaine Lettuce E. Coli Outbreak Likely Over

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John Besser, CDC, 2018 Food Safety Consortium

CDC: Quite a Year for Outbreaks, Exciting Time in Food Safety

By Maria Fontanazza
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John Besser, CDC, 2018 Food Safety Consortium

This year Salmonella outbreaks hit chicken, shell eggs, ground beef, pre-cut melon, dried and frozen coconut, pasta salad, chicken salad, turkey, ground beef, raw sprouts and breakfast cereal. There were also significant Cyclospora infections linked to salads sold at McDonalds as well as vegetable trays. For the first time in 10 years, a Listeria outbreak was linked to an FSIS regulated product (deli ham); ground beef was affected by E. coli O26. And perhaps the most notable outbreak of the year was the E.coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region.

“It’s been quite a year for outbreaks,” said John Besser, Ph.D., deputy chief, enteric diseases laboratory branch, at CDC, referring to the pathogens that have plagued a variety of consumer products in 2018. “Out of this group, there are a lot of the things you’d expect, but also some brand new unexpected [products affected] like shredded coconut and Honey Smacks cereal.”

Despite the number of outbreaks that have hit the food industry in 2018, “this is a really exciting time to be in public health and food safety, because there are a lot of tools we can use to help make food safer,” said Besser. Most of the diseases that impact the food industry are preventable if their source can be identified, and using big data can have a tremendous impact on improving food safety.

Yesterday John Besser informed attendees at the 2018 Food Safety Consortium about CDC’s latest efforts in foodborne disease surveillance, which he defines as the
systematic collection, analysis and interpretation of health data. The agency is actively working to identify unrecognized gaps in the food supply chain and provide the industry with information it can use to make products safer. “The most important reason for detecting outbreaks is so we can identify the problem and fix it,” said Besser.

There are two ways that CDC detects outbreaks. The first is via the “citizen reporters” who are observant and alert the agency. (This is actually how E.coli O157 was discovered). The second is through pathogen-specific surveillance where CDC takes lab information and links cases that are geographically diverse. These cases are often widely dispersed and are the most effective way to find food production and distribution problems, and are often easier to address than local issues, according to Besser.

He went on to review the successes of PulseNet and the promise of whole genome sequencing (WGS) and metagenomics. The CDC’s PulseNet nationwide WGS implementation project is underway and will result in a “tsunami of data”, with the timeline as follows:

  • January 15, 2018: Listeria monocytogenes
  • October 15, 2018: Campylobacter jejuni/coli
  • January 15, 2019: Diarrheagenic E.coli (including STEC)
  • March 15, 2019: Salmonella enterica

Metagenomics will continue to play a large role in enabling unbiased sequencing of all nucleic acids in an environment. It will help to directly characterize sequences from samples, food and people (i.e., the gut), and could aid in pathogen discovery.

“I think within just a few years, it’s going to be the standard for tests,” said Besser. “My prediction is that you’ll be able to do this test in the production environment.”

Deadly Outbreaks and the Role of Metagenomics

FDA

FDA Restaurant Study Finds Employees Not Properly Washing Hands or Keeping Foods to Temp

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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FDA

Yesterday FDA released the initial phase of its findings of a 10-year nationwide study that looks at the relationship between food safety management systems, certified food protection managers, and the occurrence of risk factors and food safety behaviors/practices, and how this contributes to foodborne illness outbreaks in retail establishments. This first phase collected data from 2013–2014; subsequent data collection will be from 2017 and 2021. The entire span of the study is 2013–2023.

The data collected and used in the 84-page “Report on the Occurrence of Foodborne Illness Risk Factors in Fast Food and Full Service Restaurants, 2013-2014” will be used as a baseline to evaluate trends in the occurrence of risk factors during the 2017 and 2021 data collection periods. Key findings in the report include the following:

  • Food safety management systems are important!
  • Restaurants had the most effective control over ensuring there is no bare hand contact with RTE foods as well as cooking raw animal foods (including meat, poultry and eggs) to the required temperature
  • Unsafe food behaviors in fast food and full-service restaurants. Improvement needed in:
    • Employee hand washing (knowing when and how to do it)
    • Proper temperature control of foods that require refrigeration to limit pathogen growth

Study results will be used to help advise retail food safety initiative and policies, industry partnerships and specific intervention strategies that target foodborne illness risk factors. It will also aid in providing technical assistance to state, local and other regulatory professionals. FDA put together a factsheet with highlights of the study.

Laura Bush, Mike Taylor
Food Safety Culture Club

Is FSMA Driving Food Safety Culture?

By Lauren Bush, Michael Taylor
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Laura Bush, Mike Taylor

We were asked if we think FSMA is driving strong food safety cultures. Our answer is: Yes, but there’s more to the story.

For the dozens of impacted families that advocated for years on behalf of the thousands of individuals who are sickened and die each year from foodborne illness, FSMA marked a sea change in accountability for preventing foodborne illness. And it demonstrated that the consumer voice can impact a Washington legislative process often perceived as impenetrable to the everyday citizen. It’s also true, however, that even before FSMA, leading companies had been implementing modern preventive measures in response to unacceptable illness outbreaks and consumer demands. And food safety thought leaders were writing about food safety culture and working to drive it. We thus see FSMA reinforcing the movement to strengthen food safety cultures rather than being the primary driver.

After all, a genuine food safety culture is as much about people and motivation as regulation. The people in food companies driving strong cultures are motivated at a personal level by knowing the severe harm deadly pathogens in food can inflict on illness victims and their families. And they are motivated at a business level by the realization that the success of a food company hinges on continuously meeting high consumer expectations for food safety. These personal and business motivations are the original and continuing drivers of strong food safety cultures.

The 2011 enactment of FSMA was made possible by the coming together of consumers, food safety experts, and industry leaders who agreed that application of the best available science to prevent problems is the responsibility of everyone. This agreement and the enactment of FSMA powerfully demonstrated how far our food safety culture had come since the uphill battles of 25 years ago over accountability for keeping E. coli O157H:7 out of ground beef and mandating HACCP for meat, poultry and seafood. There is now consensus that adoption of modern preventive controls is a basic responsibility of everyone producing food.

Food safety culture is about much more, however, than simply doing the basics of preventive controls. It’s about staying on top of change in the hazards that occur in our food system and in the means available to minimize them, and being committed to continuous improvement in response to these changes. FSMA took the breakthrough step of making continuous improvement a regulatory requirement by tying the definition of preventive controls to current expert knowledge about how to control hazards and requiring controls to be updated regularly as new knowledge emerges. In this way, FSMA reinforces the movement to strengthen food safety culture and makes it everyone’s responsibility.

But it all still comes back to motivation. Stop Foodborne Illness has long contributed to that motivation by sharing the stories of individuals and families who have experienced devastating loss and lasting harm from foodborne illness. Companies seeking to strengthen their cultures invite Stop constituents to tell their stories in employee training sessions and meetings with senior executives. In this new era of food safety, we see great opportunity to expand collaboration with food companies to help drive the widest possible implementation of best practices, continuous improvement and strong food safety cultures. In this effort, FSMA is our important ally.

Bush and Taylor co-chair the Board of Directors of Stop Foodborne Illness, a non-profit consumer organization that represents victim of foodborne illness and their families.

Chipotle

Chipotle Retraining Workers Following Illnesses that Shut Down Ohio Location

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Chipotle

Last month Chipotle Mexican Grill closed a location in Powell, Ohio after nearly 650 reported illnesses were tied to the location. The outbreak was caused by Clostridium perfringens, a type of bacteria that thrives at room temperature—in other words, food at this particular Chipotle location may have been kept at unsafe temperatures.

Following this latest incident, the company has decided it will retrain all of its estimated 70,000 employees on food safety and wellness protocols. Currently a source of the outbreak has not been found.

“Chipotle has a zero-tolerance policy for any violations of our stringent food safety standards. We are committed to doing all we can to ensure it does not happen again.” – Brian Niccol, Chipotle

In line with the company’ zero-tolerance policy, some employees who worked at the Powell location were reportedly let go after the outbreak.

Chipotle has had several outbreaks that have made headlines over the last three years.

Francine Shaw, Savvy Food Safety, Inc.
FST Soapbox

Would Your Team Know How to Handle a Crisis?

By Francine L. Shaw
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Francine Shaw, Savvy Food Safety, Inc.

In 1993, Jack in the Box put foodborne illnesses and food safety “on the map” when their undercooked burgers led to an E. coli outbreak that infected more than 700 people. 171 people were hospitalized and four children died.

Don’t miss the Plenary Discussion on Crisis Management at the 2018 Food Safety Consortium | Learn moreUnfortunately, this infamous outbreak wasn’t an isolated incident. Foodborne illness outbreaks are on the rise in the United States. The CDC reports that 48 million Americans become sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States.

A string of unprecedented outbreaks at Chipotle occurred at multiple locations, beginning in 2015. Recently, there was widespread concern when romaine lettuce tainted with E. coli was shipped, served and sold at restaurants, stores and institutions nationwide. Earlier this year, approximately 2,000 7-Eleven customers at a Utah location were exposed to hepatitis A due to an infected employee who worked (and handled the convenience store’s food) while sick. The state’s local health department announced that anyone who used the restrooms, drank a fountain drink, ate fresh fruit or any item from the store’s hot food case was at risk for infection from the highly contagious illness.

Keep in mind that a crisis isn’t necessarily a foodborne illness. Think about other unexpected crises that could impact your organization, staff and customers, like natural disasters (hurricanes, blizzards, tornados, etc.) What if there’s a robbery, shooting or bombing at your venue? What if a guest chokes and dies? Perhaps there’s an unexpected power outage or a fire? Yes, unfortunately, these are all real possibilities.

If a crisis were to occur at your establishment, would your team know what to do?

As the saying goes, if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail. It’s extremely important to be prepared for every type of crisis imaginable—before anything bad actually happens.

When developing a crisis plan, consider and implement the following:

  • Form a crisis management team. Assign roles and responsibilities. Ensure all designated crisis team members understand what’s expected of them in the event of a crisis. For most food businesses, the crisis team will consist of a corporate attorney, company leadership, food safety team, crisis management consultant, a public relations expert, a trained media spokesperson and applicable government agencies.
  • Know how your local health department operates. The role of the local health department varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, so get to know your local inspectors. Work with your regulatory agencies, who will want to help.
  • Create honest, authentic and apologetic messaging. This will, of course, need to be developed to meet the specifics of your situation. Regardless of what happened, honestly describe the situation and explain the solutions-focused plan you’ve created to move forward. Transparency is important, otherwise key audiences (customers, employees, media, investors, advertisers, etc.) will lose confidence and trust in your company.
  • Work with the media to disseminate information about the incident. The media want to report what has happened, and it’s in your best interest to be straightforward with them. If there was a breakdown in your process, identify it, whether you received tainted merchandise from a vendor or experienced an error in the kitchen. Explain the concrete steps you’re taking to fix it and prevent a reoccurrence (e.g., selecting different vendors, re-training your staff, adjusting your food allergy protocols, etc.).
  • Train (or re-train) your staff on food safety protocols. Be certain that everyone is knowledgeable about food safety (e.g., how to prevent cross-contamination, how to properly prepare allergy-friendly meals, how to cook foods to proper temperatures, etc.) to avoid similar crisis situations in the future.
  • Use social media wisely. Monitor social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) and respond to negative and/or erroneous comments. Messages on social media (as well as in real life) should always be positive, professional and honest. Don’t get defensive and don’t allow yourself to get sucked into toxic, negative message spirals.
  • Communicate with your customers, employees and other key stakeholders to win back their trust. Be honest, sincere and apologetic. Explain how/why their loyalty is so important to you, and vow to earn their trust again.
  • Change vendors, if necessary. Did a vendor mislabel ingredients, causing an allergic reaction in one of your guests? Did they source tainted products and sell them to you? Change vendors, and be clear in your communications (to media, via social media platforms, etc.) that you identified the vendor as the source of the problem, explaining that you’ve cut ties to them to eliminate similar events in the future.
  • Thank the responders that helped. Perhaps your crisis wasn’t a foodborne illness –it was a customer dying of natural causes, a bomb threat, a weather emergency, or an electrical fire. Use the media and social media platforms to thank the police, fire department and/or paramedics—whichever responders helped defuse the situation.
  • Designate a media spokesperson. When facing a serious crisis, your restaurant’s CEO/owner/president should be the spokesperson. The public wants the head of the company to speak authoritatively about the incident and the concrete plans to resolve the problem. Practice your messages before going in front of the cameras, anticipate the most challenging questions you may receive, and determine how you’ll respond professionally, politely and non-defensively.
  • Stay calm. While it’s upsetting (and terrifying!) to be in a crisis situation, remain calm as you work to recover from the incident. Follow your crisis plan and communicate your key messages. Make certain that important audiences (including customers, prospects, employees, the media, vendors, health inspectors, etc.) recognize how hard you’re working to prevent similar incidents in the future.
  • Debrief after the crisis is over. Regardless of what happened and the severity of the situation, after any kind of incident, get the crisis management team together and debrief. Review your plan and see if there is any room for improvement.

It is critical to have a plan established just in case a crisis occurs. Hopefully, you’ll never have to use it, but it’s always wise to be prepared. A crisis can hit any business at any time—how well you handle the situation could make a monumental difference in the court of public opinion.

Francine Shaw, Savvy Food Safety, Inc.
Retail Food Safety Forum

How Technology is Elevating Food Safety Practices & Protocols

By Francine L. Shaw
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Francine Shaw, Savvy Food Safety, Inc.

Technology is elevating food safety practices and protocols, and will help reduce or eliminate food safety incidents and outbreaks in the future. However, a major challenge will be getting food businesses to adopt these tech tools. Food service companies have been slower than other industries to adopt technology, preferring instead to do things “the way they’ve always done them”— often using antiquated pen and paper systems to track food safety standards. Often, food business owners are worried about the cost and implementation of tech solutions, fearing that they’ll be too expensive and/or complex for them to manage.

Something has to change in our industry. Food recalls are on the rise—recently with a huge nationwide romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak and recall. Even a big name packaged breakfast cereal was recently recalled for possible contamination.

America’s food industry has a $55.5 billion safety problem annually, as reported by Fortune magazine (This information was gathered from a 2015 study by Robert Scharff,  an associate professor at Ohio State University, who estimated that foodborne illnesses cost $55.5 billion per year in medical treatment, lost productivity, and illness-related mortality in the United States). This includes foodborne illnesses at restaurants and retailers, food recalls, and other food safety issues.

The CDC reports that 48 million Americans become sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States. Therefore, investing in food safety is one of the smartest things that food service organizations can do. The expense, time and energy necessary to implement—or elevate—your organization’s food safety protocols won’t be overwhelming, and it’s crucial to your business’ success.

Foodborne illnesses are expensive and damaging for businesses. Having a foodborne illness incident or outbreak can cost significant money—including decreased revenues, hefty legal fees, potential lawsuits, diminished sales (and loyalty) from guests afraid to visit the (possibly contaminated) restaurant or store, and a damaged reputation that could permanently shut your doors.

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Food safety should be part of every company’s culture. Everyone—on every shift—should be trained in proper food safety protocols. And, since tech solutions have become more accessible and mainstream, more food businesses should adopt and use them.

The latest technologies are elevating the way many food service businesses operate. Not only do these technological tools make food safer, but they can also save restaurants, convenience stores, hotels and other food service companies a tremendous amount of money each year.

Technological solutions enhance food safety protocols and make it faster, more accurate, and more efficient to conduct inventory, auditing, training and keep food safe. Investing in technology is something that all food businesses should do to help boost the health and safety of their establishments.

Nothing will negatively impact your organization’s brand and reputation more than a foodborne illness outbreak. While human error can never be completely eliminated, advancements in technology help minimize the risks. Some innovative developments include:

  • Sensors. Sensors ensure foods are being held at proper temperatures. For instance, centralized, continuous refrigeration monitoring systems signal when temperatures in coolers or freezers rise above safe holding temperatures, eliminating the need to throw away entire coolers or freezers of food due to improperly working units. As a result, businesses can save thousands of dollars (or more) in lost product and potentially save lives by storing cold foods properly.
  • Digital auditing tools. Innovative digital tools can now be used for food companies’ internal auditing systems, which is a more efficient, cost-effective and accurate solution versus the pen and paper methods that are often (and widely) used in the food service industry. Using pen and paper to audit restaurants, hotels, institutions and stores often results in increased labor, time, errors and expenses. Additionally, hard copy records can be hard to organize and access—and it’s extremely difficult to integrate and analyze the data. Digital tools provide more efficient, cost-effective internal auditing systems, with records that are easy to access and analyze.
  • Mobile solutions. The food service industry is comprised of many employees from younger generations (e.g., millennials and Gen Z), and these populations have grown up on their smartphones. Now, food businesses can leverage digital tools that can be used on cell phones and tablets, which is an easy and effective way to engage younger employees. Many companies are providing downloadable apps that enhance the way food service employees conduct inspections, keep temperature logs, conduct training, manage QA forms, access food code information, and more. Critical food safety information can (literally) be at employees’ fingertips.

These (and other!) tech solutions offer significant benefits to food service businesses, including:

  • Boosting operational systems. Digital tools can help with brand protection and quality assurance concerns by optimizing and improving line checks, shift logs, inspections, auditing and other reporting.
  • Improving the bottom line. Investing in technology boosts companies’ operational efficiencies, which has been proven to improve their bottom line. Technology tools can reduce or prevent food spoilage, reduce labor costs and help avoid foodborne illnesses.
  • Reducing fraud. There’s a widespread “pencil whipping” problem in the food service industry, where employees using paper record systems falsify records or “cheat” on their processes. As much as food service leadership wants to deny that “pencil whipping” happens in their organizations, it’s (unfortunately) a fairly common practice in restaurants, convenience stores and other industry businesses. Pencil whipping can result in increased food safety risks, food code violations and other (potentially costly) issues. Digital tools can help reduce or eliminate “pencil whipping” through real-time data collection, and visual records using photos and videos.

While technology has previously been considered to be a luxury, today, digital tools are affordable, widespread and accessible. Technology that can help minimize labor, reduce (or eliminate) foodborne illness risks, and minimize food waste is not an expense, it’s an important investment.

Technology streamlines operations, improves safety protocols, reduces errors, integrates data—and so much more. The benefits are huge. Often, food service owners tell me that they can’t afford the investment, or that they’re overwhelmed about how to find and implement the right system. I reassure them that it’s truly easier than ever to incorporate tech tools into food companies, and it’s one of the smartest things companies can do. Innovative technology tools are critical to keeping foods, consumers and businesses healthy and safe.

Stephen Ostroff, FDA

Too Many Recent Outbreaks, FDA Says Significant Food Safety Problems Continue

By Maria Fontanazza
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Stephen Ostroff, FDA

The serious outbreaks over the past few months indicate that industry continues to experience “significant food safety problems”, said Stephen Ostroff, FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the IAFP annual meeting last week. He referred to the most recent sizable produce-associated outbreaks involving romaine lettuce, pre-cut melon and veggie trays, as well as the Kellogg Company recall of Honey Smacks cereal and the Rose Acres eggs recall, both of which were due to Salmonella. “We have a lot of work to do,” said Ostroff, adding that the numerous recalls involving kratom products is concerning.

These issues highlight how the increasingly complex supply chain further complicates problems once they arise. Ostroff emphasized the necessity of end-to-end tracing, from product origination to where the consumer can access the product, and that it needs to be efficient, standardized and rapid, especially for commodities. Regarding the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak involving romaine lettuce, FDA is still trying to determine the source and mode of the contamination. And while the recent finding of the outbreak strain in the irrigation canal water is important, it still does not answer the question of how the contamination got into the canal, said Ostroff.

The latest FDA update on the outbreak investigation stated that additional samples are being analyzed on an ongoing basis and any new matches would be publicly disclosed. As of June 28, the CDC announced that the outbreak was over.

Janice Buchanon, Steritech
FST Soapbox

Is Food Safety Part of Your Crisis Management Plan?

By Janice Buchanon
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Janice Buchanon, Steritech

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s been hard to miss the food safety-related headlines of the past month: E. coli in romaine lettuce, Salmonella-tainted eggs, norovirus-infected oysters sickening hundreds, and hepatitis A crises across several states, to name just a few. Since 1993 when an E. coli outbreak linked to ground beef at a fast food chain resulted in the deaths of several children, food safety has been on the radar of most major foodservice groups. Yet, surprisingly, food safety often doesn’t have its own crisis management plan within organizations.

At the 2018 Food Safety Consortium, don’t miss the Plenary Panel Discussion: Crisis Management: Don’t let that crisis sink your business!A Single Food Safety Crisis Can Ripple Across Your Operation

A food safety crisis can have tremendous impacts on an organization, leading to lost sales, negative media and social media publicity, unsavory online reviews, temporary restaurant closure, lost wages for your staff, increased scrutiny on other locations, lawsuits and more.

In a 2016 survey of more than 500 consumers, it was revealed that food safety incidents stick with consumers—and that can impact your reputation and your bottom line for much longer than you may realize.

  • Of the respondents, 62.5% said they were aware of a food safety incident at a restaurant in the last six months.
  • A foodborne illness outbreak isolated to a single location of a chain restaurant would prevent many of the survey respondents from dining at other locations in the chain; 34.1% of respondents said that if they knew about an outbreak at a single location, they’d avoid eating at other restaurants in the chain for more than six months. Worse, 17% said they’d never eat at the chain again.
  • If a foodborne illness outbreak is linked to multiple locations of a restaurant, consumers get even tougher. A whopping 37.5% would avoid eating at the entire chain for more than six months. There’s more disturbing news: 31.7% of the respondents said they’d never eat at that chain again.

Food safety incidents don’t have to be large scale to be significant and get into the consumer eye. They happen every day, in small scale, for many foodservice operations. Think about how the following incidents could impact food safety in your organization:

  • A power outage knocks out refrigeration for a single location for 12 hours
  • A boil water advisory is issued for a large city
  • A fire extinguisher is discharged in a kitchen to put out a small fire
  • A hurricane brings widespread flooding to a metropolitan area
  • A child whose parent asks about peanut allergies is served a food containing peanuts
  • A child becomes ill in a restaurant and vomits
  • A kitchen employee is diagnosed with hepatitis A and continues to work without disclosing the illness
  • A location is closed by the health department for a pest infestation
  • Several locations were supplied with a food item involved in a major recall for contamination

Each of these incidents is related to food safety. Would your employees, from the top down, know what actions to take in each specific situation? Most senior or executive-level C-suite personnel might know what to do, but that type of training often never makes it down to the operator level. When an incident does happen, it leaves location level management and employees scrambling to figure out what to do; often, the steps they take are incorrect, and can even exacerbate the situation.

What’s Trending in Food Safety Incidents
Over the last 24 months, we’ve helped many major brands in resolving crisis situations. The top five types of crisis incidents we’ve assisted with include:
– Potential Hepatitis A exposure
– Potential Norovirus outbreaks/exposure
– Health department closure
– Power outages
– Boil water advisory

Just as organizations prepare for other crises—fire drills, food shortages, staffing problems, active shooters—having crisis plans for food safety incidents can help an organization’s players know what to do when a food safety incident occurs. This goes beyond risk mitigation to actually knowing what steps to take when specific types of crisis happen. Proper planning for crisis management includes:

  • Identifying the most likely crisis situations and developing a plan of action for each of them.
  • Identifying who all the key players are going to be in the management of the crises, from C-suite to public relations to individual location responsibilities, and communicating that to all team members
  • Outlining all the steps to be taken in a crisis
  • Building familiarity with a defined plan for operators of an individual location
  • Presenting an opportunity to practice the plan before a crisis occurs (training)
  • Crisis management doesn’t end with the crisis; following any crisis, key stakeholders should review the crisis management plan for that incident to determine if updates or changes are needed

What to Look for in a Crisis Management Partner

Crisis management isn’t something to go alone if you don’t have internal expertise on your team. Crisis management goes beyond public relations—it should include training and step-by-step processes for each specific type of crisis. So what should you look for in a food safety crisis management partner?

  • A partner who has food safety knowledge and practical experience in dealing with crisis
  • A partner who has familiarity with the different types of crises you outline as critical for your organization
  • A partner who engages team members and can help you conduct training from the top down

Why Now?

Crisis management should be part of every organization’s plan already, but if it’s not, there are some key reasons to act now. A number of current events are having a substantial impact on the foodservice community, increasing the need for food safety crisis management plans.

  • Hepatitis A outbreaks. States including California, Michigan, Kentucky and Indiana have had a significant increase in the number of hepatitis A cases reported. While this problem doesn’t start in the foodservice community, it does impact it—because as communities see higher cases, the chances of a food handler coming into contact with an ill person and contracting hepatitis A increase. Hepatitis A can be easily spread through food, so it’s critical that foodservice operations have a crisis management plan to deal with exposure incidents.
  • Norovirus. Norovirus-related outbreaks and foodservice operation closures—and the media exposure that goes along with them—have been on the rise for the last several years. Norovirus can create problems for operations in a number of ways, from employees working while sick, to customers getting sick in the establishment, to foods being contaminated with norovirus. Knowing how to respond to norovirus incidents is critically important, as norovirus outbreaks can lead to location closures, costly disinfection costs, unwanted publicity, lawsuits, and more.
  • Increasing turnover. With unemployment rates at record lows, foodservice operations are facing an employment crisis, unable to hire enough workers. This can increase the opportunity for food safety incidents as routine tasks and processes may be “short cut” during an employment shortage.
  • Delivery. The skyrocketing demand for delivery has led chains to quickly put together delivery plans. Crisis management should be addressed as part of any delivery plan, as there are any number of variables which could lead to potential incidents in delivery.

Don’t wait until a food safety incident occurs to figure out your crisis management plan. Start work today to ensure that when a food safety crisis occurs, your team and your brand can weather the storm.

Recall

Caito Food Recalls Pre-Cut Melon Products Following Salmonella Outbreak

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Recall

An investigation of a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella Adelaide infections has been traced back to pre-cut melon distributed by Caito Foods, according to an outbreak update from FDA. The agency, along with CDC and state and local officials, are investigating the outbreak involving 60 people in five states in the Midwest, and have traced it back to fruit salad mixes that include pre-cut melon. As a result, Caito Foods has issued a voluntary recall of these products, which were distributed to Costco, Jay C, Kroger, Payless, Owen’s, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, Walgreens, Walmart, and Whole Foods/Amazon. No deaths have been reported.

The illnesses occurred between April 30 and May 28. The FDA is advising consumers to refrain from eating the recalled cut watermelon, honeydew melon, cantaloupe and fresh-cut fruit melody products that were produced at the Caito Foods facility in Indianapolis, IN.