7 Tips to Minimize the Risk of Foodborne Illness in Restaurants

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The CDC estimates that every year around one in six Americans is afflicted with a foodborne illness. That’s around 48 million people, and about 50 percent of those cases stem from restaurants or delis.

This is a public safety concern, but it can also turn into a public relations nightmare for restaurants if foodborne illness strikes a customer. Those two reasons are why preventing it is one of the most important tasks that restaurant district managers are faced with on a daily basis. 

Of course, since the spectrum of foodborne illnesses is constantly evolving, this is easier said than done. But with the proper amount of preparation, safety precautions and training, it’s possible to drastically minimize your risk of transmitting foodborne illness to patrons.

Here are seven tips to help you minimize the risk of transmitting foodborne illness at your restaurant(s):

1. Establish Clear Policies

The first place to start is to implement clear policies and ensure that they are communicated to your entire staff. This can be a challenge in our industry. A CDC study found that 58 percent of food service workers speak Spanish primarily, yet only 41 percent of managers speak Spanish. To mitigate the possibility of misunderstanding when it comes to food safety policies, be sure that you write them out in addition to communicating them verbally, and that they are communicated in any and all primary languages spoken by your staff. For example, the same study found that 95 percent of restaurants have a floor cleaning policy, yet only 37 percent of those policies are written out. Correcting this and clearly communicating food safety policies can make a big difference in controlling the spread of foodborne illness.

2. Educate and Train Staff Thoroughly

In addition to setting out clear policies, restaurant district managers need to take the time to educate and train staff members in a thorough and clear manner. When foodborne illness occurs, it’s generally because someone is not complying with procedures. Training can help mitigate this risk. For example, you should make sure that employees understand exactly what constitutes a “food contact surface.” This can include any place where food might splash or drip, as well as the interior of microwaves and many more areas that may not be intuitive. Another common misunderstanding is around hand-washing procedures or cutting board cross-contamination. Sharing policies in person and getting it all in writing is a good place to start. To build on that, a written test and regular spot-checks that enforce accountability are the key to long-term adherence.

3. Schedule Cleaning Procedures

In addition to establishing defined policies and communicating them through education and training, you should implement a schedule that makes cleaning procedures a simple matter of timing.

A simple-to-follow schedule that lists out the steps to proper sanitization and cleaning can be a huge help. The most common way for foodborne illness to spread is through cross-contamination, and the best way to avoid this is to ensure that food contact surfaces are cleaned thoroughly and regularly according to a schedule. You can use a digital reporting system like Squadle to create such checklists and share them with managers. Additionally, restaurant cleaning schedules can be found online, but be sure to tailor yours to your specific situation and to attach timing to each item on the list.  

4. Measure Success With Reporting

There’s no way to be sure that your employees are following policies and procedures continuously without systematically measuring behavior. Restaurant compliance reporting software like Squadle HQ can dramatically simplify the process of implementing, maintaining and verifying the success of your cleanliness and illness prevention program. Taking the time each day to check that procedures have been followed can seem like a headache in the moment, but technology can ease the burden, and ultimately this is the best way to ensure that the hard work that goes into developing your policies and educating your staff about them pay off. See our full list of ways that digital reporting can help prevent food safety disasters here.

5. Offer Paid Sick Leave

The most common contributing factor to the spread of foodborne illness is the handling of food by someone infected with a disease. This accounts for 65 percent of outbreaks.

Of course, it’s not as simple as telling sick workers to stay at home. A recent survey discovered that 20 percent of restaurant workers have worked while sick. While it might be tempting, then, to blame the outbreaks on employees, the reason they come into work while sick is often because they are concerned about short-staffing the restaurant or, worse, about losing their own jobs. If you want to make sure that workers don’t come in while sick, you need to offer paid sick leave. You also need to offer a safe space for people to report others’ suspected illnesses anonymously and without consequence.

6. Use Hands-Free Sinks Whenever Possible

The vast majority of restaurants offer handwashing stations in restroom and kitchen areas for their staff, making it easy for them to keep their hands clean while working. However, very few restaurants have implemented hands-free sinks (around 3-4 percent.) They can make a big difference in preventing the spread of foodborne illness by reducing the amount of surfaces that come in contact with dirty hands. While the upfront investment may seem steep, especially in the case of multi-outlet franchises, it can be well worth the time and effort to install them. At the very least, ensure that sinks are readily available and regularly sanitized along with all other food contact surfaces.

7. Employ the Right Tools and Techniques

In addition to ensuring the availability and cleanliness of sinks, make sure that the cleaning materials and tools you are using are up to par. Chlorine- and ammonia-based products are among the best ways to ensure that foodborne illness does not spread. Cleaning product dispensing systems are another great way to ensure that your employees are not only using the correct products but also the appropriate concentration for cleaning and food safety purposes. You should also include in your education for employees appropriate contact times to kill bacteria and other organisms, as well as ideal temperatures for eliminating these foreign bodies. 

Technology can also be your friend here: a high-tech thermometer can help ensure that your food stays the right temperature while in the refrigerator or freezer. Using the right tools and techniques -- including proper cleaning agents, restaurant compliance reporting software and clear guidelines -- can make a big difference in preventing foodborne illness before it spreads.

These seven key steps can help you as a restaurant district manager prevent the spread of foodborne illness, for the sake of the general public as well as your brand’s image. Having a plan in place, rather than flying by the seat of your pants, is the best way to make sure that proper procedures are followed and cleanliness standards are met. Once your action plan has been implemented, you’ll be able to spend less time worrying about foodborne illness and more time taking care of your customers.

What does your restaurant do to prevent the spread of foodborne illness? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Tweet us at @GetSquadle and tell us what you think.