An Introduction to Food Safety
Food safety is a critical component in the restaurant industry, presenting an on-going compliance matter. This guide simplifies the safety requirements for restaurateurs.
What Is Food Safety?
Simply stated, food safety refers to a set of rules and procedures that govern how a kitchen, as well as the restaurant staff, operates for the purpose of ensuring that the food and beverages served are safe for consumption by patrons.
The rules, as well as the procedures, help prevent foodborne illnesses, colloquially referred to as food poisoning. Certain groups of patrons are more susceptible to certain foodborne illnesses due to their age according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Children who are under the age of four years old are more likely to develop salmonella as well as other types of foodborne illnesses. Patrons who are older than 50 years of age and patrons who have compromised immune systems are more likely to require hospitalization if they are made ill because of a foodborne illness.
Complaints of food poisoning from patrons can be quite costly for restaurant owners. You may find that some patrons expect more than a refund for their meal.
Some may expect compensation for their medical care, including hospitalization and missed time from work. Others may decide to file a negligence lawsuit against you.
Some patrons may file a complaint with the health department that, in turn, may cause surprise inspections to occur. If too many reports of food poisoning occur, you may even notice a dramatic decrease in revenue.
Safety concerns with food are also regulated at the state level. Failure to keep up with the required regulations could result in several costly matters. You could be subjected to continuous monitoring by the state, fines, or be forced to shut down your operations until the required improvements are made. Depending on the severity of the violations, the state may permanently close down your restaurant.
How Important Is Food Safety?
Food safety is important for several critical reasons. Let's start with the operations.
To remain in business, your restaurant must comply with the guidelines in your state. If you're in the planning stage and haven't yet launched your business or if you've launched and you're looking to ensure that you're adhering to all of the requirements in your state, you're in luck. The FDA provides a comprehensive list of links to each state's safety regulations as well as the FDA Food Code.
Failure to adhere to the regulations in your state or the FDA Food Code could result in-
- Bad publicity- In many states, restaurant inspection reports are public records. The inspection rating may even be posted inside of your restaurant for patrons to see. Depending on the rating or your restaurant, you could lose business.
- Increased Costs- Depending on the type of violations found, you could be facing a budget crisis because of the sudden need to buy new or additional freezers, refrigerators, warming stations, prep areas, or other necessary items.
- Fines- You could be fined hundreds or thousands of dollars for violations involving food. And while health and safety inspections happen on a regular basis, complaints from diners could lead to surprise inspections.
- Business Shutdowns- No one starts a restaurant with the thought that they will be shut down by the state because of health violations. People start restaurants because they love food or they love the hospitality industry.
Regulations for the proper food handling and safety also protect your patrons as well as your staff. Your staff members who may eat during their shift could also be exposed to improperly stored or prepared food, as well.
Food poisoning can be mild, but it can also cause serious problems. From the angle of the patron, you may endure complaints, requests for refunds demands for reimbursement of medical expenses as well as time missed from work, and you may even be forced to defend a negligence lawsuit.
If your staff contracts food poisoning, you could be short-staffed or end up dealing with a worker's compensation claim, since it's something that occurred during their scheduled shift.
In the long-run, understanding and following the proper requirements of your state can minimize a lot of unexpected expenses as well as potentially save you from facing costly lawsuits and insurance claims.
Food Safety Laws and How You Are Held Accountable
Each state sets its own laws surrounding the safety of your food. Additionally, you may even find that some counties have their own food handling requirements. This highlights the importance of doing your research and locating the body that governs food regulations where your business is located.
As an owner, you will be the one who pays the ultimate price for health code or safety violations even if you're not in the proverbial trenches on a daily basis. As a result, it's important that you understand what is required of the restaurant's management, including chefs, line cooks, wait staff, and all other employees.
One of the best ways that you can protect your investment is to hire an experienced general manager who understands the importance of food safety laws. This person should have a proven background in working with health inspectors to ensure the safety of both diners as well as employees.
To provide a deeper understanding, here are some examples of laws from two jurisdictions as well as how you could be held accountable by the state-
- There must be a supervisor in charge of employees who is well-versed in food safety, including, but not limited to, understanding major food allergies and the symptoms of allergic reactions related to food allergies.
- There must be a supervisor in charge of employees who understands foodborne illnesses including microorganisms and hepatitis A, the procedures for sanitizing equipment and utensils to prevent foodborne illnesses, and temperature control for the prevention of foodborne illnesses.
- Food preparation must be completed with suitable utensils using clean workspaces that have been sanitized.
- Food must be protected from cross-contamination.
- Raw eggs, live mollusk shellfish, pasteurized milk and milk products, potentially hazardous foods held in vending machines, potentially hazardous foods sold at farmer's markets, and potentially hazardous foods being transported must be kept at 45 degrees F or below.
If the food establishment code is violated, you could be subject to a hearing as well as face a civil fine. Your food permit could be suspended or revoked.
- During the food preparation process, most foods may not be prepared using bare hands. The exception is if the food will be reheated to a minimum temperature of 165 degrees F.
- Potentially hazardous foods must be heated to at least 140 degrees F. However, there are several exceptions. Poultry, poultry stuffing, stuffed meats, and stuffing with meat must be heated to at least 165 degrees F. Pork and any food that contains pork must be heated to at least 150 degrees F. Rare beef must be heated to at least 130 degrees F unless the diner specifically requests otherwise. If the meat or fish is raw, you must let the customer know it is raw. Eggs or foods that contain eggs must be heated to at least 145 degrees F unless otherwise requested by the customer or in a style such as poached as requested by the customer. Ground meat must be heated to at least 158 degrees F unless a customer requests otherwise.
- Product thermometers must be numerically scaled and accurate to plus or minus two degrees F.
Permits may be suspended temporarily after a notice is given as well as an opportunity for you to be heard. If you do not comply with the requirements, your permit may be fully revoked or suspended. Under extreme circumstances, your restaurant may be closed and a notice published in one or more New York newspapers explaining why your establishment was shut down.
Improper Food Safety and Your Bottom-line
It wasn't quite so long ago that Chipotle had incident after incident reported in the news of a massive foodborne illness outbreak. In fact, the issue became so massive that the FDA got involved and launched an investigation. The CDC posted about it as well.
That is certainly not the kind of publicity that any restaurant wants to have. Once it's on the internet, it's there forever. While they did not declare bankruptcy or go out of business, it is estimated that the entire matter cost them $8 billion in profits. That isn't $8 billion in renovations, expansions, or anything positive.
According to CNN, they lost 44% of their profit compared to the year prior to the outbreak. All of this was, of course, linked to an issue related to food.
While Chipotle managed to survive, it is important to consider its size. Most restaurateurs do not have the same financial backing. Even if you're a franchisee, it's important to consider safety regulations for food since you're paying to use a name and promising to offer certain products to the public.
Improper food safety has the potential to close down most restaurants. Depending on the circumstances and whether the state issues fines, it could even drive some restaurateurs into bankruptcy.
We are not alone in this opinion. In 2013, the Economic Impact of Food Safety Outbreaks on Food Businesses was published. Authored by Malik Altaf Hussain and Christopher O. Dawson, the estimated cost of losses related to outbreaks is around $7 billion each year. It also notes that there are more than 300,000 hospitalizations each year that occur because of food poisoning.
While this article speaks directly to businesses in the food industry, it is still a beneficial source for common consumers to better understand how issues involving food can have an impact on restaurants.
Tips for Ensuring Food Safety
To simplify things, here are three tips to help ensure proper food compliance in your restaurant.
- Create a plan- It's vital to understand the requirements in your state as well as to hire a general manager who is experienced. Doing both can help make the creation of a plan much easier. Safety standards for food should be everyone's priority. The FDA offers a Food Safety Plan Builder that can help you get started. Keep in mind that using their tool is not a substitute for following the requirements in your state. Check your state regulations to ensure you cover facility requirements, hazard analysis and controls, process controls, food allergy prevention controls, sanitation measures, supply-chain measures, recall plans, how to reanalyze your food safety plan, recordkeeping procedures, food separation and preparation processes, etc.
- Proper storage is a necessity- Regardless of where your restaurant is located, proper storage is your best friend. It helps prevent cross-contamination which can help cut down the risk of food poisoning. It also helps ensure that foods are kept at safe temperatures before and after they are prepped which helps limit or stop the growth of bacteria.
- Do not skimp on training your staff (and yourself)- The safety of food is everyone's responsibility. Train, train, and train some more. In addition to training, you must also ensure that everyone is following through on what is required. If they aren't, you need to find out why. Is it a training issue? It might be if they're new. Do they think performing certain routines takes too much time? It's important to point out why the routines are necessary. Training is great but is rendered ineffective when not applied appropriately and correctly.
Food Safety and Your Employees
Adequate food safety is imperative for your employees. Depending on where you operate, it may be required for your employees to have a food handler's permit. Additionally, their training in and application of safety regulations reflects upon them as professionals in the food industry. It also reflects upon your restaurant.
Although it may seem to your employees that you are the only person who will actually pay the price for a violation, the truth of the matter is that they pay as well. If the restaurant is shut down, temporarily or permanently, they won't earn a paycheck.
If the restaurant is closed down permanently, it can make it difficult for them to find a job since they will have to explain that they worked in some capacity for a restaurant that was permanently closed for violating food compliance. That would be a serious issue for many potential employers.
It really is in the best interest of everyone to understand and follow not only safety requirements for food but also the current best practices to exceed the general requirements.
Recap and Conclusion
- Food safety is a health issue, a financial issue, and a legal issue for restaurant owners
- Ignoring safety requirements could lead to fines, license revocations, and even lawsuits
- The best way to handle issues is to have a plan in place, embrace the use of proper storage, and to ensure that everyone is properly trained as well as properly engaging in the required food safety practices
- Food safety is everyone's responsibility!
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