Most people love going out to eat, especially at a favorite restaurant. When you’re hungry, and the food smells so tempting, the last thing on your mind is whether or not the food is being prepared and handled safely before it reaches you at the table. All restaurants must comply with specific safety standards to pass inspections. How do you find out if a place has deficiencies?

As it sounds, food safety refers to the proper handling and storing of food to avoid foodborne illness. There are certain things that we all do when preparing food at home to achieve this. However, food at restaurants also needs to be safe to prevent their customers from getting sick. Compared to a grocery store, restaurants have many more steps before the food gets into your possession. It’s a tedious process of transportation, storage, and handling. All of these create many opportunities for bacteria to infiltrate and contaminate food products.

A recent example of how the system can be disrupted is the poor food safety that occurred at the popular Mexican food chain, Chipotle, in 2015. During the event, hundreds of consumers contracted the E. coli bacteria. This resulted in the nationwide closure of many Chipotle locations, and it had an extremely negative financial impact. According to MarketWatch, the value of Chipotle’s stock decreased by 18% in the first two months of the outbreak. The most significant detriment to Chipotle was the major hit to its reputation, image, and brand. While Chipotle didn’t go out of business, many consumers will always connect E. coli with it.

According to a survey by Zebra Technologies, six in 10 people said they would never go to a restaurant again if they contracted a foodborne illness while eating there. People don’t realize just how many germs are in restaurants. The show, Good Morning America, sent a team of scientists earlier this year to swab the items on the tables of 12 restaurants. Menus had the most germs, with an average count of 185,000 bacteria. This was nearly 16 times more than the second most germ-infested item, which was the pepper shakers.

Another consideration is the food industry workers. The Food Chain Workers Alliance study found that 53% of them reported going to work when sick. Since the people who work in food service are less likely to be able to afford to take a day when ill, they go to work.

The Zebra Technologies study included 4,957 consumers and 462 food and beverage firms from 15 countries in the manufacturing, transportation, logistics, retail, and wholesale distribution markets in North America, Latin America, Asia-Pacific, and Europe. According to 70% of consumers, it’s important to know how their food and ingredients are manufactured, prepared, and handled. Based on currently available information, less than 25% of consumers said they have complete confidence in the safety of their food.

In North America, close to 2/3 of consumers cited fear of foodborne illness as the primary reason for wanting more information. Consumers stated that their top food safety concerns were restaurant kitchen and wait staff hygiene, foodborne outbreaks, illness from contaminated food, and food and beverage recalls. There’s a disconnect between what consumers believe and what industry decision-makers think.

Many decision-makers (69%) say the industry is prepared to manage food traceability and transparency; however, only 35% of consumers concur. Further, only 13% of consumers felt the industry was highly prepared today to manage food traceability and be transparent about how food travels through the supply chain. The number of decision-makers reporting feeling this way was 27%. The trust level in companies and brands to ensure food and beverages are safe is higher among industry decision-makers (45%) than consumers (18%). Over 90% of decision-makers recognized that investments in traceability-focused solutions would help them meet consumers’ expectations.

What Are the Problem Areas?

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Office of Regulatory Affairs is responsible for all restaurant and commercial kitchen inspections and enforcement. Every year, they publish a compilation of food safety violations. This is known as the annual Inspection Observations. One interesting thing about the report is that the same five categories of violations occur most frequently: inadequate pest control, unintended contamination, lack of handwashing, insufficient sanitization, and improper temperature.

Pest infestation violations are either a lack of adequate screening for pests or a lack of effective exclusion of pests from specific food processing areas. Contamination doesn’t refer to just pests. Cross-contamination of produce by bacteria from raw animal products is far more common. This occurs when harmful bacteria, allergens, or other microorganisms transfer from one object to another unintentionally. Often invisible to the human eye.

While contamination and sanitization are closely related, restaurants can be cited for sanitation violations even if no contamination has occurred yet. This is why sanitizing surfaces, including prep areas, cutting boards, equipment, storage areas, trash cans, and floor drains, is an integral part of your food safety regimen. This helps to remove food residue, dirt, and invisible germs from surfaces. All restaurants should have sanitation procedures for employees to follow daily, weekly, and monthly.

Use separate products when dealing with different food products, such as different cutting boards and particular receptacles for raw meats, vegetables, produce, and cooked foods. A great way to keep track is to use a color-coded system. All fruits and vegetables should be thoroughly washed to rid them of any bacteria and dirt that may be on them. To do this properly, use clean, cold water and a vegetable brush when necessary.

Even though handwashing should fall under sanitization, the violations are so common that it gets its own category. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food handlers’ unwashed, exposed bare hands are the most common means of transmitting gastrointestinal viruses and bacteria to foods. Hand washing citations are usually traced to one of three causes: lack of employee mindfulness, inadequate handwashing facilities, or sick employees coming to work.

All employees should wash their hands before preparing and handling food and when shifting between tasks. Doing this correctly means washing thoroughly with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. There should be signage in the bathroom and kitchen reminding employees to wash their hands thoroughly.

When it comes to handling ingredients, restaurants must provide their employees with gloves. Even when using gloves, it is recommended to wash your hands before engaging in any meal preparation process because gloves give us a false sense of security. It’s easy to touch raw meat, then move on to touching another food item. This means the gloves spread contamination rather than prevent it when they’re not changed often enough.

One of the most essential elements of food safety is temperature. Foods should be prepared and stored at safe temperatures to avoid food poisoning. The goal should be to keep food out of the “Danger Zone,” which refers to temperatures between 41 – 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Internal temperatures should be either above or below. Any temperature-sensitive foods should not stay in the danger zone for more than 2 hours. Otherwise, bacteria can start to grow quickly.

The FDA’s Temperature Control for Safety (TSS) requires food temperature monitoring to keep microorganisms at safe levels. New technology in refrigerators triggers an alarm if the temperature rises above a specific number, which occurs well before the food reaches its spoiling point.

Another area of concern is inspection and handling techniques. Proper ones must be used at each point of the supply chain to encourage strong food safety. To ensure this takes place, restaurant operators should partner with trusted food service distributors and manufacturers with credible reputations in the industry. Every individual at every level of the food supply chain has a responsibility to inspect food products and handle them with extreme safety thoroughly. All restaurants should pay attention to food recalls and check their food inventory to see if there are any matches. The FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) frequently publish lists with recalls.

Self-service areas present their own unique challenges because they’re especially susceptible to contamination. All serving utensils, food storage containers, sneeze guards, and countertops should be frequently cleaned and sanitized. For added safety, have flatware, napkin, and straw dispensers designed to dispense single-use items. Designate specific employees to monitor the area and take corrective action if unsafe practices have occurred.

Impacts of COVID

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtually every restaurant had to adapt its operations somehow. Many people don’t realize how much food safety has changed. Restaurateurs are dealing with things like cognitive overload, turnover, and supply chain disruptions.

Cognitive overload is when employees are dealing with overwhelming amounts of things affecting their ability to remember things at any given time. The three key factors contributing to it are the abundance of decision-making opportunities, distractions or training interruptions that must contend with, and the constant need to manage every moment of our day to maximize efficiency. One way to combat it is by giving employees external reminders, such as checklists that lay out the correct procedures or steps. It’s also helpful to have systems in place that alert employees if food has been out too long or kept at an unsafe temperature.

The pandemic has caused many employees to leave the food industry. Those who stayed are facing burnout. Since restaurants often rely on job shadowing and a paper packet to cover their training bases, these two factors are presenting significant challenges. If you have HRM software, take advantage of any training tools. If not, consider something as simple as a series of short YouTube videos covering correct food safety procedures. Supply chain disruptions have compromised food safety throughout the pandemic. If restaurants have the right purchasing software, they can connect directly to suppliers, review pricing, and approve any out-of-contract charges before delivery.

Before the pandemic, many grocery stores allowed customers to go beyond purchasing traditional ready-to-eat or commercially packaged products and eat hot meals right there in the store. Some examples are Whole Foods Market, Wegmans Food Markets, and Mariano’s. The National Restaurant Association calls these types of establishments “hybrids” or “retail-host restaurants.” Just five years ago, it was declared “one of the fastest-growing segments for restaurant food.”

Thanks to the pandemic, public health concerns and widespread measures around social distancing and safety have forced several notable changes that included a complete reversal in this model. This isn’t surprising since the CDC reports that 40% of foodborne illness cases are related to retail food consumption. Food safety must be re-imagined to include these types of setups.

New Focuses

The FDA is taking steps to prioritize food safety, called the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint. It’s a 10-year roadmap where technology and other tools will be utilized to build a safer and more digital, traceable food system. The four pillars outline goals to enhance traceability, improve predictive analytics, respond more rapidly to outbreaks, address new business models, reduce sources of contamination for food, and foster the development of stronger food safety cultures.

The first pillar is focused on Food Safety Culture with the hope of creating a direct digital connection between the consumer and the food they are served to establish a culture of food safety.

The second pillar is Retail Food Safety Modernization, which is focusing on touchless retail experiences driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The third pillar is Smarter Tools and Approaches for Prevention. An example of new technology is hand scanners that use visible light fluorescence spectroscopy to detect invisible signs of bacteria and viruses instantly.

The fourth pillar is Tech-Enabled Traceability and Foodborne Outbreak Response. This includes using intelligent label solutions that integrate digital identities from the start of a food products journey. This can be done with RFID tagging. According to the Zebra Technologies survey, 41% of industry decision-makers stated RFID tags would improve food traceability within the supply chain more than any other technology.

What Can You Do?

When it comes to food safety at restaurants, there are things you can do to protect yourself. One of the first is to check inspection scores. You can look for it when you get into the restaurant. Since restaurants aren’t always required to display their health score in the open for people to see, you can also go to your local health department’s website. In some cities, health scores for restaurants appear on Yelp pages, allowing users to see when any restaurant was last inspected and what kinds of violations they were guilty of.

It’s important to note that there’s no national grading system for restaurants. Health inspectors look for things consumers can’t see, like refrigerator temperatures, employee sanitation practices, and potential cross-contamination of food. Also, look for certificates that indicate kitchen managers have completed food safety training.

If you walk into a restaurant during peak meal hours and it’s close to empty inside, that’s a red flag. Take a look at the other diners because having a meal together is supposed to be a joyful occasion, but if everyone in the restaurant looks unhappy, it’s a clear indication something isn’t right.

Beware of restaurants that hire PR teams to reach out to local bloggers, journalists, and people who frequently post reviews. Typically, they offer free or discount meals and turn up customer service, hoping for a great review. This doesn’t always equate to the actual restaurant experience. A great way to double-check this is to check Yelp or other similar services to see if their reviews are consistent. A great way to find a good restaurant is to eat where the locals eat because the diners are there because of its reputation.

Part of scoping out a restaurant is to look at the overall appearance. If the windows and doors are dirty, it could be a sign the restaurant isn’t focused on cleanliness, and that may carry over into the areas where your food is prepared. Another aspect of this is the theme, style, and design of the place. If there are too many going on, service and management aren’t in sync behind the scenes. The restaurant shouldn’t have stained ceiling tiles, unswept/unvacuumed floors, dead/dying plants, torn wallpaper, or paint chipped/stained.

Take a look at the menus. Are they torn, worn, or dirty? It’s a sign the staff isn’t paying attention to the environment. Another key clue is the smell of the restaurant. Does it smell like stale grease, burned food, or just an overall stench that burns your nostrils? If so, turn around and walk out the door. Restaurants that emphasize cleanliness will work to eliminate lingering smells.

When checking out a restaurant, also look at your server. Do they have dirt under their fingernails, have loose strands of hair, or are visibly sick? Usually, if the in-plain-sight staff isn’t practicing good hygiene, there’s a good chance that the employees in the back aren’t, either. Does the staff look like they’d rather be anywhere else than at the restaurant?

One telltale area that can indicate there’s something wrong is the bathroom. If the bathroom is neglected, it’s a sign the staff isn’t keeping up with cleanliness tasks. Employees almost always use the same restrooms as customers, so ensure a restaurant has the basic handwashing necessities (ex. soap, paper towels or a hand air dryer, and hot water) and the bathroom isn’t dirty.

A helpful tip is that restaurant bathrooms are often near the entrance to the kitchen, so while you’re back there, spy on the kitchen. While kitchens can be busy, they shouldn’t be chaotic. It also shouldn’t be messy. Look for safe food-handling practices, such as workers using gloves or utensils to handle foods that won’t be cooked further.

When your food arrives, check the temperature. If it’s supposed to be hot, make sure it is. The same goes if your food is supposed to be cold. Unless the menu specifically states that a meal is meant to be served at room temperature, it’s a sign that a plate was left out too long between when it was made and when it was served. Obviously, finding something in your food, like a bug, a hair, or a piece of metal, is a sign something is wrong in the back of the restaurant; however, another indicator is the way the food is put on the plate or served without appropriate side dishes or condiments (especially items that you ordered), gives the impression that the staff isn’t interested in what they’re doing.

It’s vital to report to your local health department if you think you or someone you know got sick from eating at a restaurant. By reporting an illness, public health officials can identify a foodborne disease outbreak and keep others from getting sick.

When it comes to food safety in restaurants, there are many areas where things can go wrong. This is why food industry members must do everything possible to prevent foodborne diseases. Implementing the latest technology is a great place to start. However, it’s also up to each of us to be aware of places that potentially could have a problem and avoid them. Both of these will help to reduce the number of illnesses from unsafe foods.