Hygiene vigilance critical to safety as food-borne illnesses proliferate – restaurant industry

Hygiene vigilance critical to safety as food-borne illnesses proliferate – restaurant industry – editorial

Charles Bernstein

Hygiene vigilance critical to safety as food-borne illnesses proliferate

Although food-borne diseases are a menace to the entire restaurant industry, operators simply are not taking the stern measures required to stamp out the threat. They are too confident that “it can’t happen here.” But it can and does as has been demonstrated numerous times with devastating results.

Almost 40,000 cases of salmonella-related poisoning were reported last year to the National Center for Disease Control. But most such cases are believed to go unreported. Estimates are that the actual number of 1989 cases may have been as high as 4 million.

Here are some of the incidents in Pennsylvania alone last summer: * A leading chain had to close one of its restaurants when 38 cases of suspected salmonellosis were traced to it. Of the 38, nine customers and six employees tested positive. * Some 30 persons on a bus tour became sick after the group had eaten at a restaurant along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. One was hospitalized with salmonellosis. * One person died of salmonellosis and 27 others got sick at a Doylestown nursing home.

In a recent incident personally observed at a restaurant, a waitress carrying a tray of food keeps sneezing. But she is not the least bit fazed and brings the food to the table without apologizing and without washing. She makes no effort to replace the food. Nor does anything happen when we point out the matter as an embarrassment and hazard to the restaurant. Finally, after 10 minutes and at the prodding of the manager, she does wash her hands.

Operators maintain that this sort of thing is not likely to happen because the law says, and the manager enforces it, that employees must carefully wash with soap and water before starting work, at each visit to the restroom, and on occasions such as when sneezing while carrying food. Hands must also be washed after touching any part of the hair or body, touching a soiled surface or handling raw foods. Hair nets are also supposed to be worn in the kitchen. But employees are often lax about these procedures, and management is guilty of ignoring infractions.

It is true that the United States has close to the best health record of any country in restaurant cleanliness. But operators should not feel satisfied until they have done a lot more to prevent food-borne illnesses. They should not wait until a health inspector issues warning citations or until there is an actual outbreak of food poisoning somewhere again.

The public’s general perception is that food products are often unsafe. James L. Marsden, scientific and technical affairs vice president of the American Meat Institute, recently noted that while the United States has one of the world’s safest food supplies “the American public has repeatedly been subjected to a litany of catastrophe relating to the safety of the food supply. The issues have included alleged associations between food additives and various forms of cancer, pesticides in fruits and vegetables, salmonella in raw poultry and BST in milk … The perception also is that the oceans are dying, the atmosphere is poisoned, and the earth itself is losing its capacity to support life.”

He attributed part of the problem to the way “our society has come to fear technology and reject anything scientifically or chemically related.” He asserted that Americans “have become a nation of easily frightened people” and quoted another leading authority as describing the American public as “the healthiest hypochondriacs in the world.”

How can the public’s perception (in effect, the reality) be overcome? It will take a more concentrated effort in careful storage and food handling and complete cleanliness. Only then can the industry accurately tell the public that there is nothing to fear. Meanwhile, the industry is still too often plagued with inadequate hand washing, questionable kitchen practices, improper cooking procedures, lax cutting-board sanitation, faulty food covering and improper stock rotation.

The problem may be getting worse as disease-causing microbes are spread by unwashed hands. And at least eight harmful microorganisms are popping up more frequently. One solution being tried by some restaurants is to put hand sanitizers at various work stations to ensure that workers will be clean at all times.

Whenever a customer is stricken with an illness relating to a restaurant visit, there is a multiple-whammy potential of terrible publicity, high legal fees, medical claims, and lost wages and sales. Any time there is a hepatitis or salmonella scare, sales at the affected restaurants plummet and some restaurants are forced out of business while others are adversely affected by the whole scare.

Operators indeed must regard cleanliness as next to godliness and must treat this crisis as an absolute No. 1 priority instead of an afterthought. Hygiene standards must be raised to a maximum level rather than merely being “adequate.”

COPYRIGHT 1990 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group