Why America's Food Safety Culture is Broken
Over the past year, I have met more than 100 highly dedicated, thoughtful food safety leaders—and they are an anxious lot. You see, they know better than every executive, investor, regulator, and customer how broken the American food safety system is. But they can’t fix it.
In most U.S. restaurants, food safety is an oxymoron. Over 100,000 people get food poisoning every day. The food safety system in America is totally broken.
As a tech executive working in the food industry, I think America’s restaurant operators can do much better. But after meeting with several dozen companies, I’m not sure food safety is a big enough priority inside the C-suite. Margin pressures, changing taste, staff turnover, and tremendous competition dominate management’s attention. That’s understandable but, ultimately, short-sighted. Overhauling food safety culture would lead to more operational consistency, reliability, lower turnover, and stronger organizational culture. Plus, it wouldn’t make 700 guests sick, as we just witnessed at a Chipotle location in Ohio. It’s time to make food safety a focal point of excellence and not a “check-the-box” throwaway that restaurant leaders place low on their priority lists.
There are a few ways to do this. I’ve had a chance to see food safety culture at an organization like BJ’s Restaurants and Brewhouse. This highly successful casual chain requires a very long list set of daily checks that their managers may (or may not) do because it’s cumbersome and time-consuming. That’s why BJ’s springs for their third-party auditing firm to come in at least once a month at each of their 200 locations. BJ’s essentially uses these auditors as cops. Their employees know that they are going to be frequently policed by these outside inspectors. This is expensive, but it’s a worthwhile investment, and it makes me more confident to eat there. Of course, the vast majority of restaurants can’t afford to pay for third party auditors even quarterly. Their own internal auditors are lucky if they get to each store once a year, never mind every month. In a world of margin pressure, many in the C-suite believe that increasing visits from EcoSure, UL Everclean and others is too much to ask of their franchisees.
Another approach is to do what 50–60 percent of restaurants do: nothing. The average general managers of an full-serve, quick-serve diner, airport cafe, school cafeteria, or smoothie shop are supposed to start each day with a “daily operations line checklist.”
Unfortunately, that list is often buried in a logbook or clipboard in the back-of-house office. And the questions are the same 100 items in the same order, day after day, shift after shift, location after location. This approach hasn’t changed in decades. For so many restaurants, this work is primarily done to comply with the law. Current food safety processes exist to prevent or limit the damage from litigation. Your team members do the paperwork because they have to—not because they’re passionate about ensuring that guests don’t get sick.
At the individual location, general managers and team leads think about getting through the shift smoothly. Rarely do they think about the fact that people can get sick on their watches. Why should an employee care whether they sneeze in the food? For some, maybe it’s their first job out of school and they don’t receive daily reminders about the importance of microbiological preventative controls. So how can they be expected to remember food safety amidst all the other competing priorities?
Most companies fear the negative brand impact of a poor health department inspection. They don’t take the responsibility of protecting their customers seriously. But think about this: nobody goes back to a restaurant where they got sick. Every day, restaurants lose customers because some team member forgot to wash their hands, and somewhere in Arizona, Ohio, or Illinois, customers (or, more accurately, former customers) are hugging their toilets and preparing a stinging social media post.
If customers knew that an organization’s food safety protocols were based on paper forms that are largely ignored and virtually never reviewed, maybe they would be more discerning in their dining choices. Executives should take heed, lest your organization become the next warning symbol.
Restaurant industry leaders need to take food safety seriously. Part of that shift includes utilizing new technologies—ranging from digital “smart checklists” to automated sensor—to help transform team members’ daily behavior. But first, we must rethink organizational priorities starting at the C-suite. This is the bedrock of fostering an authentic and effective food safety culture.
Manik Suri, Co-Founder and CEO of CoInspect, vows to make food safer and filing cabinets obsolete. CoInspect software powers food safety, quality assurance, and standards management for restaurants and food manufacturers. The company's obsession: Make software that is fast, flexible, and easy-to-use. For more information, visit www.coinspectapp.com.