What Could Have Been Done to Prevent 3 of the Most Tragic Cases of Food Poisoning In US History

According to the 2001 Food Code Public Health Service Report by the FDA, “Foodborne diseases cause 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year… The annual cost of foodborne illness in terms of pain and suffering, reduced productivity, and medical costs is estimated to be $10-83 billion” (Mead et al).  Those numbers speak for themselves.  While they might be inconvenient or costly for restaurants, preventative food safety practices are essential in avoiding incidents that could result in death.  Let's take a look at three serious cases in the United States when food safety standards were overlooked.   

1. Chi-Chi’s Restaurant

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The November 2003 incident at this Mexican food chain was the nation’s largest known outbreak of Hepatitis A.  Three died and 660 were confirmed to be affected by green onions that were served at the Chi-Chi’s in the Pittsburg area at the Beaver Valley Mall.  Hepatitis A is typically spread in locations with poor sanitary conditions by unknowingly infected employees who have handled food without washing their hands.  After the incident made national news, the reputation of the restaurant never could recover and the chain eventually went out of business. 

2. Jack in the Box

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In 1993, 732 people were infected with E. coli after eating undercooked beef in hamburgers purchased at 73 Jack in the Box restaurants in California, Nevada, Idaho and Washington.  Four children died.  Health inspectors traced the disease back to the restaurant’s Monster Burger that had been promoted as being “So good, it’s scary,” and being sold at discount prices.  Its popularity overwhelmed the fast-food chain and resulted in the failure to cook the hamburgers for long enough and at the temperature required to kill the bacteria.  Scary, indeed.  After the incident, Jack in the Box was hit with several lawsuits which left the chain almost bankrupt and caused the loss of many customers.

3. Sizzler

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Out of 551 possible cases, 64 people were confirmed to have contracted E. coli infections from eating at Sizzler locations in Wisconsin in 2000.  Out of the 64, four developed HUS and one child died.  The Wisconsin Department of Health determined that the outbreak was caused when employees cross-contaminated watermelons with raw meat products.  It was revealed that the child who died only had watermelon meaning that Sizzler could have prevented her death had they implemented safe food standards and cleaned the surfaces that the meat had been touched.  

How can my restaurant avoid cases like these?

Let’s start with the basics.  HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point and is a prevention based food-safety system which looks at specific food safety hazards.  It is a voluntary program in which guidelines are provided for the creation of a food safety management system.  HACCP implements seven principles: perform a hazard analysis, decide on the critical control points, determine the critical limits, establish procedures to monitor CCPs, establish corrective actions, establish verification procedures, and establish a record keeping system.  The goal of these principles in retail and food service is to ensure the service of safe food. 

A key HACCP term is active managerial control which is the purposeful action by industry management to control foodborne illness risk factors: food from unsafe sources, inadequate cooking, improper holding temperatures, contaminated equipment and poor personal hygiene.  In order to have a larger control over food safety, managers must determine CCPs or Critical Control Points which are essential operational steps in the food prep process needed to make sure hazards are eliminated.  

In the cases above, had the restaurants been stricter on their food safety laws, they could have avoided tons of money in costs from lawsuits and, more importantly, saved lives.  The implementation of HACCP, while voluntary, is necessary to avoid similar cases in the future. 

What do you do to ensure safe food practices in your business?  Feel free to share with us in the comments.