What Would You Do in a Food Safety Crisis?

By Francine L. Shaw, President
Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc.

What Would You Do in a Food Safety Crisis?
Francine L. Shaw, President
Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc.

What if your restaurant inadvertently served salads made with tainted lettuce, which sickened dozens of guests?  Or one of your servers accidentally served pesto to a guest with a nut allergy, who had a severe allergic reaction as a result? Perhaps your restaurant didn’t pass a health inspection and your commercial kitchen was shut down?  You’re facing a crisis – do you know what to do next?

Food service employees don’t intend to serve up a plate of Salmonella, norovirus or listeria, but sometimes tainted produce or undercooked meats make guests sick – or worse – even kill them.  Restaurant employees may accidentally cross-contaminate – cutting ready-to-eat food like fruit on a board that previously held raw chicken, contaminating the fruit with bacteria from the raw poultry juices.  Maybe they didn’t realize that a sauce contained dairy and they unknowingly served it to a dairy-allergic guest, who had to be transported by ambulance from your restaurant to the ER.

Even with the most careful food safety protocols in place, your restaurant is at risk for a food safety crisis.  Do you have a crisis plan in case the worst-case scenario happens at your venue?

Ideally, you’ve thought about crisis management before anything bad actually happens at your restaurant.  It’s important for all food service businesses to create a crisis plan before a crisis occurs to follow if a disaster strikes.  In a crisis, your team will be upset – even terrified – and will need an actionable plan to use as a guide moving forward.  While you hope to never need it, it’s better to be prepared.  A crisis plan will help you and your employees handle a crisis, deliver accurate messages, minimize damage, and rebuild your restaurant to be stronger (and safer) than ever.

When we think of a food safety crisis, we often think of foodborne illnesses, but all restaurants should prepare for a variety of crisis scenarios: a severe allergic reaction at your establishment, a failed health inspection, a product recall, an employee worked with norovirus and infected customers with it, etc.  You should also know how to react to any potentially damaging occurrence, where “bad news” about your restaurant is spreading through town – including a social media crisis.

When you’re creating your plan, include the following:

  • Find out what happened. This is the most important first step. Was there an error in your kitchen? Did a vendor ship tainted product?  Were products held at the correct temperature?  Did cross-contamination or cross-contact occur? Was there a mistake in product labeling? Did an ill employee spread a sickness (like norovirus) to customers? Determine what happened and how it happened.
  • Communicate with key audiences. Your customers, prospects, employees, advertisers, sponsors and others want to know what happened and what you’re doing to remedy the situation.  Create honest, apologetic messaging and be heartfelt and genuine in your communications.  Give the facts – what happened, where there was a breakdown in the system, and how you’re preventing a reoccurrence.  Explain the solutions-focused plan you’ve created to move forward.
  • Work with the media. Some restaurant owners/managers avoid the media in a crisis, but that’s not in your best interest. Instead, work with the media to tell your story – explain how there was a breakdown in your process and how you’re moving forward to fix it and prevent a reoccurrence.  Stay focused on the facts. Be apologetic, and don’t get emotional or defensive.
  • Train (or re-train) your staff on food safety protocols. Be certain that everyone is knowledgeable about food safety (e.g., how to prevent cross-contamination and cross-contact, how to properly prepare allergy-friendly meals, not to work when they’re vomiting or have diarrhea, etc.) to avoid similar crisis situations in the future.
  • Use social media wisely. Some restaurants (and other businesses) experience a “social media crisis” that negatively impacts their reputation (online and off). An Applebee’s employee recently posted inappropriate things about a customer, and many followers were offended.  Applebee’s reacted defensively, firing back hostile comments that added fuel to the fire.  Then they started deleting the online threads about the incident, rather than addressing them rationally, which angered their followers and caused additional damage.  Don’t get defensive and don’t allow yourself to get sucked into toxic, negative message spirals.  Messages on social media (as well as in real life) should always be positive and professional.
  • Vow to win back customers’ and employees’ trust. Actions speak louder than words, so do what you promise moving forward. Be very clear about the steps you’re taking to “right the wrong” that occurred.
  • Make changes. If a vendor mislabeled ingredients or sourced tainted products, cut ties with that vendor.  If an employee made an accidental error, be sure to train them (and all of your staff) about how to avoid similar problems in the future.  If an employee or vendor made a deliberate error (e.g., knowingly posting damaging information about your restaurant on social media), take appropriate action, which may include termination, suspension, etc.
  • Designate a media spokesperson. When facing a serious crisis, your restaurant’s CEO/owner/president should be the spokesperson.  The public wants the head of the company to speak authoritatively about the incident and the concrete plans to resolve the problem. Work with a professional crisis management team so your spokesperson doesn’t do more harm than good in interviews.  For instance, Steve Ells, the CEO of Chipotle, was widely criticized for his delayed statements in the wake of the chain’s massive (and multiple) foodborne illness outbreaks in 2015.  Further, he appeared nervous – not authoritative – in his television interview, which may not have reassured a nervous public that he was in control of the situation.  Practice your messages before going in front of the cameras, and anticipate the most challenging questions you may receive – and determine how you’ll respond professionally, politely and non-defensively.
  • Stay calm. While it’s upsetting (and also terrifying!) to be in a crisis situation, remain calm as you work to recover from the incident. Follow your crisis plan and communicate your key messages.  Make certain that important audiences (including customers, prospects, employees, the media, vendors, health inspectors, etc.) recognize how hard you’re working to prevent similar incidents in the future.
  • Move forward. Yes, a crisis at your restaurant will likely be the hardest and scariest period in your professional life, but you will get through it.  Stay strong, positive and solutions-focused.  Be a good leader for your staff.  Vow to serve safe food in a healthy environment.  And demonstrate – through your words and actions – how important the health and safety of your customers, staff and community are to you.

What Would You Do in a Food Safety Crisis?Francine L. Shaw is President of Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc., which offers a robust roster of services, including consulting, food safety training, food safety inspections, norovirus policies for employees, norovirus clean-up procedures, curriculum development, responsible alcohol service training, and more. The Food Safety Training Solutions team has more than 100 combined years of industry experience in restaurants, casinos, and convenience stores. The company has helped numerous clients, including Paradies Lagardère, McDonald’s, Subway, Marriott, Domino’s, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America, Dairy Queen, and Omni Hotel and Resorts, prevent foodborne illnesses. Additionally, they work with restaurants of all sizes, schools, medical facilities, convenience stores, hotels and casinos.  Francine has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the Dr. Oz Show, the Huffington Post, iHeartRadio, Food Safety News, and Food Management Magazine.