Top 5 Risk Factors Responsible for Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

By Francine L. Shaw

Top 5 Risk Factors Responsible for Foodborne Illness Outbreaks
Francine L. Shaw,
President Savvy Food Safety, Inc.

Food safety is a grave public health concern, causing an estimated 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths each year in the U.S. Foodborne illnesses are 100% preventable. But, unfortunately, foodborne illnesses continue to occur because people in the foodservice and hospitality industries make mistakes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the top five risk factors that most often are responsible for foodborne illness outbreaks are:

  • Dirty and/or contaminated utensils and equipment.
  • Improper hot/cold holding temperatures of potentially hazardous food.
  • Improper cooking temperatures of food.
  • Poor employee health and hygiene.
  • Food from unsafe sources.

Take into consideration that 60% of all foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States each year are caused by foodservice establishments, according to the CDC. How do we reduce these numbers? I’m a firm believer in education, teaching people WHY food safety protocols are so important. Training shows an individual how to accomplish a task; education teaches them why it must be done.

Have Proper Supplies Available

After we educate and train our team members, we must provide them with the proper tools. I worked for a gentleman years ago that (randomly) kept all of the cleaning supplies in the trunk of his car. If he wasn’t at the restaurant and we ran out of dish soap, we were out of dish soap. We weren’t permitted to go to the store to purchase more. Hand soap, same thing. Per his insistence, we would place used mop heads in empty five gallon pickle buckets so he could take them home to launder them (which he said reduced cleaning costs). Since he wasn’t always prompt about cleaning the mop heads, maggots often accumulated in the buckets (gag).  We did not have the tools to do our jobs properly. That restaurant had plenty of dirty and contaminated equipment.  The manager’s priorities were (obviously) in the wrong place.  He was worried about saving (minimal) money on cleaning expenses, yet if a foodborne illness occurred at this establishment (which was likely with the maggots and lack of soap), it would have been devastatingly expensive and damaging for this company’s brand and reputation.

In addition to providing the proper supplies, ensure that all tools – including utensils, dishes, cutting boards, pots, pans and other equipment –are properly (and regularly) cleaned and sanitized.  Dirty or contaminated tools can cause widespread foodborne illnesses, making guests sick and potentially ruining your company’s reputation.

Check Temps

I was doing a health inspection recently and lifted the lid on a prep table containing various types of meats, cheese, and raw vegetables. As soon as I lifted the lid, a pungent stench hit me in the face. This table was very close to a 725°F oven, so the heat surrounding the table (and the food) was intense. As I checked the product temperatures with my calibrated thermometer, I asked the shift manager to see the temperature log…there wasn’t one available (surprise). I then asked how long the  products had been in the table, as my thermometer reading was 75°F, 80°F, and higher (too high for these particular items to be held). Her response: “Since last night.” This conversation was occurring about 1:30 p.m. They had likely served 100 or more people risky lunches (am I the only one who can smell?).

As a health inspector, when I ask for thermometers at many foodservice establishments, they scramble to find one, which clearly indicates that they aren’t being used on a regular basis. It’s important to check the temperatures of your products so you can be certain you are storing/holding them at the proper temperatures.  Not doing so can cause serious illness – even death. I know food cost is near and dear to every operator’s heart, but even expensive prime rib and lobster must be thrown out if it’s held at improper temperatures. 

If thermometers aren’t available to monitor temperatures for holding products, how are cooking temperatures being checked? “Cook until juices run clear” is not an acceptable measure of doneness. Calibrated thermometers must be utilized to ensure temperatures have reached appropriate levels to reduce bacteria to safe levels for consumption.

Don’t Let Employees Work When They’re Ill

How many times have you been short staffed and when someone calls in sick you say, “Can you just come in for a little while?” Let’s be honest, it happens often.  Infected food workers cause 70% of reported norovirus outbreaks. Employees come to work ill for a variety of reasons: they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs, they can’t afford to take the day off, their boss guilt-trips them into working, etc.  Sick employees can cause a norovirus outbreak.  Do NOT allow employees to work when they are vomiting or have diarrhea – and for a full 48 hours after their symptoms stop. 

Norovirus is highly contagious and spreads quickly through contact with hands (sick employees touching foods and services).  Norovirus is the number one foodborne illness in the United States, with foodservice establishments being responsible for 64% of those outbreaks.   It’s imperative to take steps to prevent norovirus, using proper protocols and supplies, like Purell® Foodservice Surface Sanitizer which will effectively disinfect surfaces in 30 seconds when utilizing appropriate disinfection instructions.  Also, insist that all employees wash their hands often, including before prepping, cooking or serving food, after using the restroom and after touching money, menus, germy cell phones, doorknobs and other surfaces.

Buy From Reputable Food Sources

When food is being prepared and served to the general public in restaurants (or retailers), we have an obligation to ensure we can trace the ingredients back to their origin in the event of an illness. Suppliers that have been inspected, are able to provide an inspection report, and that meet applicable local, state, and federal laws are considered to be approved suppliers.  Don’t ever purchase food from unproven or uninspected suppliers.

Everyone in the food service industry should be taking all precautions to avoid foodborne illnesses.  We have an obligation to ensure that food is safe.  Foodborne illness outbreaks – including norovirus – can sicken (or kill) your customers and can cause irrevocable damage to your company’s reputation.  Food safety is a very serious issue, so take EVERY precaution to keep your foods (and your guests) safe.

Top 5 Risk Factors Responsible for Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

Francine L. Shaw is President/CEO of Savvy Food Safety, Inc. which offers a robust roster of services, including consulting, auditing, expert writing/updating and implementation of HACCP plans, food safety education, food safety inspections, curriculum development, and more. Francine’s diverse background includes spending over 20 years in the food service industry, beginning as an hourly employee and eventually an operating partner. She continued her career as a food safety subject matter expert working in academia as well as private sector, her company has performed thousands of food safety inspections – for both local health departments and the private sector. Francine is a well-respected international speaker, and has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the BBC World Series Radio, Dr. Oz Show, the Huffington Post, iHeartRadio, Food Safety News, Food Management Magazine, EATER, and Food Service Consultants Society International.