Food Safety and the Law - Cross-Contamination Prevention Can Help Keep You Out of the Court Room

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Foodborne illnesses affect as many as 76 million Americans each year. It is claimed that about 58% of the instances of foodborne illness arise out of commercial and institutional foodservice. Aside from the public health concern, an outbreak of foodborne illness associated with commercial or institutional foodservice also poses potentially substantial liability risks for the service provider and harm to the provider’s reputation and goodwill. It is not surprising then that foodservice industry risk managers and quality assurance professionals are devoting substantial resources to developing best practices and policies to reduce those risks.

Cross-contamination of food is one of the most serious foodborne illness risks facing restaurant operators. Cross-contamination may involve microbes, chemicals or allergens. The chief culprit is raw products not handled, stored or processed in a manner that prevents potential contamination of cooked, ready-to-eat, or heat-and-serve products that will not be fully cooked prior to being consumed. Both employees and food contact sources may serve as vectors for the transmission of contaminants (such as pathogenic microbes) to food, with additional contamination routes including restrooms, waste receptacles, floors and pests. Controlling these risks in a restaurant environment requires evaluation, preparation, training, and monitoring of all food handling environments.

By adopting best practices for the control of cross-contamination, food servers can help mitigate the inherent legal and business risks. Best practices include adoption of daily practices by management to monitor employee hygiene and food handling practices, both at the beginning of work shifts and throughout the workday. Among the keys to successful hygienic practices are assuring proper hand sanitization, appropriate attire, glove use, using separate preparation/ cutting surfaces and utensils for different types of food, proper surface cleaning and avoidance of employees working with both raw and ready-to-eat products. To enhance the prospects for successful adoption, it is important for management to lead by modeling proper methods wherever possible. Even enhanced and diligently monitored hygienic practices may prove ineffective if certain systemic problems are not addressed, however. Therefore, management should undertake system evaluations to identify whether workflow processes or workplace layout may be leading to increased risk of cross-contamination. System solutions may include changes to product flow or facility layout such as separating raw and ready-to-eat storage, preparation, and handling. Management should also attend to potential cross-contamination threats posed by allergens in the ingredients they use by ensuring that vendors are aware of allergen disclosure requirements and agree to adhere to them. In order to maximize the effectiveness of all such measures, management should look to standardize its processes, ensure proper training, diligently monitor adherence to practices and document compliance.

By taking these steps, restaurants enhance their ability to effectively defend code enforcement and civil legal actions arising out of foodborne illnesses. Civil claims against restaurants often fail because plaintiffs cannot establish the necessary causal link between alleged contamination and their illness. A provable, effective set of practices (including, for example, comprehensive and standardized sanitization procedures), sound training records, appropriate monitoring plans, and good record-keeping can forestall many foodborne illness claims by heightening the plaintiff's causation hurdle. In addition, these measures can lay the cornerstone for public relations efforts in the event of an outbreak that is (rightly or wrongly) tied to a restaurant's operations, providing a basis for restoring confidence in the company's product or brand.