6 Food Safety Practices For QSRs that Will Keep Customers Safe and Satisfied
Why is Food Safety Important?
Food safety is an extremely important factor to consider for all restaurants. Without robust food safety measures in place, a restaurant's sales numbers, howsoever strong they are, would be meaningless. A restaurant giving scant attention to safety protocols in food preparation and handling would invariably attract official sanctions and its business would suffer sooner or later.
The criticality of food safety can be well understood when one considers the findings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that point towards foodborne illnesses as one of the major causes of disease in the US.
According to the CDC study, the US sees around 50 million cases of domestically-acquired foodborne illness annually, caused by the action of 31 known pathogens (like viruses, bacteria, and parasites) and several unspecified agents. This translates to one in every six Americans complaining of foodborne illnesses every year. Add to this nearly 130,000 hospitalizations and more than 3,000 deaths, and you know that you have a real problem at hand. The coronavirus that has been on the rampage for the past two years queers the pitch even further.
Quick-service restaurants (QSRs), in this regard, face the biggest number of challenges to maintain food safety. These restaurants are built to handle limited menu items, bulk orders, a strident flow of customers, and fast-paced service. Handling a pile of orders in a short span of time can be hectic, and in the hurly-burly, 'fast food' may cease to be 'safe food'.
Steritech, an auditing and consulting solution provider with roots in the foodservice sector, in fact, conducted over 14,500 assessments over January to June 2018 and found that QSRs typically fall prey to unsafe practices in a bid to fulfill customer demand and press for even quicker service.
The study found that 'clean' utensils and trays in QSRs often still have residue on them, and there are issues with cold holding on service lines. Items are found to be out of temperature, though the norm is for cold food items requiring temperature control to be held at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
One needs to be mindful of avoiding the temperature danger zone for foods (41-135 degrees Fahrenheit), but in QSRs food items often sit out during the time of preparation. Food that is to be hot held must be done so at 135 degrees Fahrenheit and above, but the open design of the equipment for storing food often makes hot holding difficult.
Food safety issues in QSRs can also arise due to storing raw food on top of cooked or ready-to-eat meals, and laxity in washing hands. In the rush of business, QSR employees may forget to change their gloves and aprons after handling raw food, or may not change gloves between tasks. They may also miss washing hands between glove changes.
QSRs also have to deal with pest infestation, expired food, and clean water getting contaminated. QSRs may also fail to change their sanitizers regularly. This can become a major issue in high-turnover restaurants that do a considerable amount of ware washing, which causes the sanitizer in a triple-sink setup to get soiled in no time.
HACCP Compliance Imperative for Food Safety
A restaurant business, therefore, must incorporate HACCP principles in its functioning. HACCP or Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point is an internationally recognized food safety management system that provides an additional layer of safety to the food industry through its analysis and control of biological, chemical, and physical hazards at various stages, starting from production, procurement, and handling of raw materials, to preparation, distribution, and consumption of the finished products.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations also does its bit and its Codex Alimentarius General Principles of Food Hygiene lays a firm foundation for food hygiene. This FAO document prescribes hygiene controls at every step of the food chain from production to consumption and recommends HACCP compliance for making sure that food is fit for human consumption and trade.
Indeed the threat posed to QSR customers also stems from their inclination towards fast food. The US is believed to have 200,000 fast-food restaurants and an estimated 50 million Americans dine at fast-food restaurants every day. Therefore, even the smallest error by the restaurant staff can have a disastrous Domino effect, making a large number of people sick.
Something similar happened in December 2006 when 71 Taco Bell customers fell prey to foodborne illnesses after consuming contaminated shredded lettuce originating from California.
The HACCP food safety management system looks to identify and control potential hazards at specific points during food production and handling. The implementation of HACCP norms is taken up by each and every segment of the foodservice industry to ensure that the food we eat is safe.
Global Burden of Foodborne Illness: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 600 million, or 1 in every 10 people, in the world fall sick, and 420,000 people die every year as a result of consuming contaminated food.
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6 Food Safety Guidelines - No. 1 Staff Training
Restaurant employees, especially the newer ones, may not be fully aware of all the food safety standards. They may, therefore, inadvertently forget to wash their hands properly, fail to wash their cutting boards or keep raw and cooked food in close proximity to each other. These simple mistakes may have serious public health implications. They endanger customers' health, dent the restaurant's brand image, attract lawsuits, and ultimately, mess the restaurant's revenues up.
Every restaurant employee should, therefore, be sensitized about foodborne illnesses, and the importance of personal hygiene, cleaning and sanitation procedures, personal safety, and their role in the HACCP program.
QSRs should start with the basics of food handling and preparation, and impress upon their staff that quick service should not happen at the cost of customer health. Training videos can reinforce food safety education, and employee interactions would result in retraining. A good training provides restaurant employees with food safety tips that help them in functioning better.
The importance accorded to food safety should be one of the yardsticks for recruitment in restaurants.
No. 2 Employ Modern Food Safety Technology
Technology can be adopted in a big way to address food safety issues. For instance, Internet of Things (IoT) temperature devices let restaurant employees monitor cold and hot food holding and service areas, and alert managers instantly when temperatures go outside an acceptable range.
Hand washing monitors guide employees in proper handwashing methods, and touchless technology in the form of digital displays in the back of the house helps in cutting transmission risk from employees who are handling the food.
The Zip HACCP food safety software provided by Hubworks in this regard is a true friend of the foodservice industry. This Hubworks product allows a restaurant to track criticalfood safety tasks in real-time and make sure that the employees follow the standard operating procedures at all times.
Updates sync across multiple devices and the Zip HACCP mobile food safety app generates reports, based on which a restaurant owner can make informed decisions and call for corrective actions from anywhere in the world.
The Blu 2 Bluetooth food temperature monitor, which can be easily linked to the Zip HACCP application, makes sure that the food is neither undercooked nor overcooked, and is devoid of pathogens.
The bouquet of features offered by the Zip HACCP software, which is available on the Hubworks app store, also includes integrated temperature solutions, hazard control checklists, mandatory corrective action checklists, a digital food audit checklist, and a restaurant implementing them is able to stay on the right side of food safety norms.
California- QSR Hub of US: According to 2020 data provided by Statista, the US state with the most number of quick-service restaurants was California. It had over 31,000 QSR establishments. Wyoming had the smallest number of QSRs with just 355 units.
No. 3 Promote a Food Safety Culture
A strong culture of food safety would encourage both the restaurant management and staff to readily follow food safety protocols, and everyone from the restaurant owner to the busser would make themselves accountable.
The onus of building that organizational culture falls on the restaurant owners, who should make it a point that food safety should not suffer by blindly running after profits. The managers should take all violations of food safety guidelines seriously and take corrective actions quickly wherever necessary. Managers should lead by example.
The restaurant management should commend a 'see something, say something' attitude among the staff members, and employees should be rewarded for taking preventive actions to ensure safe food preparation and handling.
The restaurant management and employees should work with the understanding that following the standard operating procedures for maintaining food quality and food safety is not just a matter of 'not getting caught', but one of pride and responsibility.
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No. 4 Conduct Regular Food Safety Audits
Each restaurant owner/manager is different and employee profiles may differ from one location to another that a restaurant operates in. Often what is considered to be rigorous adherence to food safety norms in one location may be considered to be slack in another location.
Specific challenges prevailing in various locations add to the complexity. Even in each particular store, it is also not enough for only one person, like the business owner, to adjudicate whether food safety norms are adequately followed.
When the matter relates to public health and stands to affect a significant percentage of the population, food safety practices in each restaurant have to be independently verified and audited on a regular basis.
A strict food safety audit would prevent restaurants from cutting corners, and perhaps costs, by compromising with food safety norms for short-term gains. For example, a restaurant chef may make do with an ingredient that has gone slightly stale, or a server may not wash his/her hands every time. A food safety audit ensures that such negligence does not occur and the food safety procedures are followed in their entirety.
No. 5 Commission a Third Party Food Safety Auditor
Surprisingly, a large number of restaurants wait for the annual inspection by the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) to know where they stand in terms of food safety. Although there is scope for corrective action, a negative report would severely dent the brand image of a business.
After all, what customers would not tolerate is a threat to their health, and may stop visiting a restaurant deemed 'unclean', and what's worse, spread the word about the restaurant being 'unsafe'. This would hurt the restaurant's bottom line.
However, successful businesses are those that do not wait for their food safety practices to be evaluated by the USFDA at the year-end. Instead, they take the help of third-party auditors.
A third-party food safety auditor can provide regular assessment of restaurants' performance on the food safety index, so that loose ends may be tightened before USFDA checks. This ensures that food safety best practices are already in place, helps to dispel customer worries, and increases the chances of a favorable USFDA rating.
No. 6 Prepare an Emergency Plan in Case of Food Poisoning
Emergencies cannot be avoided on certain occasions. In spite of the best efforts of the restaurants, a pathogen may creep in at some stage of the food handling or preparation, causing food poisoning. In fact, even a little bit of carelessness is enough for contamination.
What should the restaurant do in such a situation? Firstly, the menu item responsible for the food poisoning should be withdrawn, and a probe should be launched to identify the exact cause of the trouble.
It has to be ascertained whether the supply itself was of poor and unsafe quality, or if the food was not cooked to the prescribed internal temperature, or whether the food handlers had followed personal hygiene standards strictly, or indeed if any physical or chemical contaminants like human hair, pest droppings, or pieces of packaging material had got mixed with the food.
Restaurants can easily track supplies to their source with the help of supply chain management software and quickly switch their orders if a disease outbreak is linked to specific raw material and supply is disrupted.
Furthermore, allergens may render food unsafe. Such food items have to be recalled. Robust supply chain and inventory management systems would help in tracing the affected products without any hassle.