Controlling the Supply Chain Is Key to Preventing E. Coli Outbreaks

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January 5, 2016

The influx of recent E.coli outbreaks is certainly not good press for the food service industry, and as foodservice operators prepare to navigate the challenges tied to another outbreak, consumer confidence continues to erode. To date, recent E. coli outbreaks have impacted chains such as Chipotle, Target, Starbucks and Costco, and have involved up to nine states.

The infected source remains to be seen in Chipotle’s most recent case, however the number of states impacted has increased to nine. So have the number of reported illnesses, which are now up to 52. Meanwhile, a celery recall has been tied to seven states and more than 19 illnesses. It also has impacted 155,000 products containing celery from chains such as Target, Safeway, Costco and Starbucks.

Incidents like this remind us of how important stringent food safety procedures are in this industry because there is a high level of trust in the food supply chain. Consumers put their trust in the hands of the restaurants that they patronize, restaurants put their trust in the distributors, distributors put their trust in the manufacturers and freight companies, manufacturers put their trust in the growers of the raw materials, etc. Just like with any sports team, the food supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This is why constantly enforcing food safety protocols throughout every stage of the food supply chain is critical.

Needless to say, the foodservice industry is high risk for food-borne illness. So what is the industry doing to reduce such outbreaks in the future?

Following Chipotle's lead

In the case of Chipotle’s most recent E. coli contamination, the company should be given credit for how they handled this situation. They recognized the critical nature of the situation and closed 43 stores in the potentially affected area, putting their customers’ safety ahead of sales. They also hired IEH Laboratories to review the company’s food supply system and has since announced it would be implementing all recommendations.

This should be the same guideline used by any restaurant or food service establishment as putting customers' needs and health first should help reduce the amount of criticism brands can experience when such situations occur. While Chipotle can’t escape from the bad press, they can take the correct and necessary measures to reduce future outbreaks.

Just as what the industry recently experienced with the Avian influenza outbreak, food service operators should constantly be monitoring their supply chain and taking the necessary measures to randomly test food products before they go in use. This includes the prevention of cross-contamination of products, which can be mitigated by thoroughly washing hands, counters, cutting boards, utensils and anything else that may come in contact with raw meat and other raw materials.

It’s important to note that even though many food service employees wear gloves during food preparation, gloves do not adequately protect against food contamination. Gloved hands can contribute as much if not more bacteria to foods and prep surfaces, being a cause of cross-contamination. Gloves should be changed frequently, especially when employees move from working with one type of food to another; such as raw meats to preparing vegetables. However, even the best gloves are no substitute for regular, thorough hand washing.

While there is no fail-safe solution for E. coli prevention, operators can take offensive action to reduce customer risk. In addition to measures taken to avoid cross contamination, all imported or domestic fruits and vegetables should be properly sanitized prior to service and all vegetables should be cooked to a core temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 15 seconds. This will help to kill any E. coli bacteria. And of not cooked, fruits and vegetables should be scrubbed to remove any dirt or other material.

While some of these precautions may seem common sense, communicating them to front line workers should be a part of any prevention plan food service operators have in place or are developing. These workers are extremely busy during peak hours—and even during non-peak times when they are focused on food preparation for the next rush. So having constant reminders of proper food handling and safety procedures could keep these practices top of mind.

It is never a positive situation when someone gets sick from a food safety related issue, but this should be a reminder that there is always risk and we as food service operators can't ever get lazy or cut corners when it comes to food safety in the supply chain. As quoted by Sun Tzu, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”

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