Protecting Your Customers from Foodborne Illness
By Dale A. Grinstead, Ph.D.
Foodborne illness is an ongoing problem even in developed countries like the U.S. and Canada. In fact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year, about one in six Americans get a foodborne illness and 3,000 die as a result. A foodborne illness incident can have a negative impact on a business—from damaged reputation and lost revenue to lawsuits and fines. Every business should understand how foodborne illness arises and how to protect its customers.
Hidden Risks and Clear Concerns
Foodborne illness leads to unpleasant symptoms, hospitalizations and even death in some cases. Everything from ice cream and lettuce to poultry and nuts can be contaminated by deadly bacteria, viruses and parasites that cause foodborne illness. The threat is further complicated by the fact that the human eye cannot detect whether a food or beverage is infected with a foodborne illness until it’s too late and symptoms arise.
Sometimes, food recalls can alert customers about an incident once contamination is discovered. But many cases still go undetected. A 2014 Harris Poll of 2,236 adults in the U.S. found that 86 percent of them were at least somewhat concerned by food recalls, and 28 percent were seriously concerned.
The same Harris Poll also found that if a brand someone purchases is recalled, one in six Americans will switch to a different brand and never purchase the recalled brand again. If illness outbreaks become commonplace, retailers will face difficulties. These incidents may result in fewer customer visits or reduced spending on certain products that are prone to recalls—drastically affecting a business’s bottom line.
The Consequences of an Outbreak
In total, foodborne illnesses cost the U.S. economy more than $15.6 billion each year. They can also have an immense direct impact on a business’s financial future. For instance, an Iowa farm linked to a 2010 outbreak of Salmonella that sickened thousands was forced to pay $6.8 million in fines to avoid jail time. Cantaloupe farmers linked to a 2011 Listeria outbreak that killed 33 people were sentenced to probation and house arrest. And executives from a former peanut company received the first federal felony conviction for a company executive in a food safety case stemming from a deadly Salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009 that killed nine people and sickened at least 714 others. The executives are facing sentences that may result in life in prison.
Top Causes of Foodborne Illness
Food can be contaminated at different points in time during handling, preparation and storage. Retailers should understand the major causes of foodborne illness so that staff can follow food safety strategies to reduce the opportunity of outbreaks at every point and keep customers returning to the business.
The top causes of foodborne illness include:
Personal Hygiene Failure
Hand hygiene is essential for those handling and preparing food because if employees have dirty hands, they can pass on harmful germs to food. Employees should understand how to properly wash their hands and do so frequently. They should also know how to maintain food safety when sneezing or coughing—and if possible—stay at home when feeling sick. The use of gloves, utensils or other tools to avoid bare hand contact with food is another way to help prevent transfer of germs from hands to food. It is important to remember though, that even when using such tools, employees must still wash their hands. Proper staff training is critical to ensure hygiene is consistent and top of mind for all employees.
Temperature plays a key role in upholding food safety and quality in all stages of food preparation, transportation and storage. If temperatures are too hot or too cold, food safety and quality can be compromised. One solution for ensuring temperature consistency is to use temperature monitoring solutions that electronically pair radio-frequency identification data logging tags with each shipment. Time, temperature, delivery records, carriers, location and weather are all recorded and stored in the cloud so results can be accessed online, allowing organizations to improve performance, accountability and transparency throughout the entire cold chain.
Once food is on-site, organizations must store food according to recommendations, such as freezing or refrigerating at specified temperatures. Warming trays should be used to keep food that is intended to be served at hotter temperatures from getting cold before being served. Food should also not be stored for longer than is safe, no matter what temperatures are used. Even at refrigeration temperatures, some dangerous bacteria can grow—albeit slowly. Employees should comply with all appropriate regulations regarding food storage times.
Foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products and fresh produce can often contain bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses. Food should reach the correct internal temperature during cooking before it is eaten. Employees and customers cannot depend on sight, smell or taste alone to determine if food has reached the proper temperature necessary to kill off harmful bacteria. Use of a properly calibrated food thermometer is a must.
If preparation areas are not cleaned and sanitized properly, bacteria can linger on surfaces and later spread to other foods prepared there. Ensuring a food preparation area has been accurately cleaned and sanitized before use will protect food from bacteria that can cause foodborne illness. It is also important to clean and sanitize between tasks when using the same cutting surface for different foods. For example, raw meat, seafood and eggs should be prepared separately from ready-to-eat foods to avoid cross-contamination. Retailers should remind employees to regularly clean and sanitize food contact surfaces and if possible, designate certain cutting boards and preparation areas for certain types of food.
Ignoring Storage Instructions
Proper storage is key to keeping food fresh and safe. Food should be kept in packaging that protects it from contamination and extends its shelf life. Food should also be kept at the proper temperature ahead of and after preparation, whether it needs to be refrigerated, placed in a freezer or held at an elevated temperature. Not only will proper storage enhance freshness and reduce illness outbreaks, it will lessen food waste and improve the bottom line.
Contaminated Food Entering the Facility
Any food that enters the facility should come from an approved source—meaning a source that is frequently inspected by a regulatory agency and that meets or exceeds the standards of said agency. Even when using legitimate sources, it is imperative to check food deliveries to ensure the quality has not been compromised in any way. If temperature has been compromised, infestation has occurred or food has been abused in any way, the delivery should be rejected so that the food is not passed on to consumers. It may be difficult to determine if contamination has occurred with produce, so it should always be washed prior to use to guarantee safety.
A focus on food safety allows retailers to provide customers with better quality products and greater peace of mind. With greater knowledge of common illness-causing issues, businesses can reduce the occurrence and impact of outbreaks and food recalls ensuring brand protection and higher sales.
Dale A. Grinstead, Ph.D., is a senior technology fellow with Sealed Air’s Diversey Care division. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.