How to crack down on foodborne illness
* Pamela Ritz is president of Austin, Texas-based Specialty Risk Management Inc.
 
Employee-illness issues have a unique importance for restaurants versus other types of businesses. Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Code and all local food codes across the country have regulations devoted to the issues.
 
Salmonella, E. coli, hepatitis A, shigella and norovirus are transferred very easily from employees to food, and the federal food code holds restaurants responsible for the health of employees. The law says restaurant operators should know of any employee who has been diagnosed with, or has symptoms of, an illness along with any employees who were previously ill, had sick family members or who may have traveled outside the country.
 
The FDA Food Code focuses on this by holding the work environment responsible for monitoring 'symptoms' such as vomiting and diarrhea, and now even sore throats and fever are all symptoms mentioned in the code. Fortunately, the FDA Food Code, and in particular the 2005 versions, have spoken forcefully to an employer's responsibilities to monitor and control the environment without running headlong into the Americans with Disabilities Act. Restaurants can be invasive regarding employee health issues because it is important to know when employees are sick and to inquire when they have been out ill or even traveling.
 
The tools for this process can be found in the Federal Food Code in the Annex of Forms at the back of the code. These forms can be added to the battery of employment forms that employers use in the employment process. There are forms for pre-employment inquiry as well as forms that require employees to disclose illnesses and symptoms of illness, so employers can exclude sick employees from work. There are even medical forms for inquiry.
 
Integration of the Food Code Forms is one best practices that can be put into place to control the restaurant environment and prevent foodborne illness outbreaks. Any employee that has a positive diagnosis from a physician on any of the top five foodborne illnesses will ultimately result in a visit by the local health department. These are reportable illnesses by physicians and they are followed up by health departments upon report.
 
While the integration may seem daunting, risk management is key. You can control your environment. You also can make a range of rules and apply those to your operation. Some employers simply require a "return to work" authorization from doctors in the event of illness (not a doctor's note or excuse). The key is establishing an "open door-like" requirement for employees to disclose key symptoms to you and to take action with this knowledge. All of these rules and tools are readily available on the Internet under the Federal Food Code.
 
Tracking customer complaints
 
Typically, we have some type of system in place for tracking customer complaints and illness calls. We have grown somewhat insensitive to these over time — in that so many calls express illness in close proximity to eating and we have some suspicion of its real relationship to our service.
 
There are some serious illness-events such as staph infection that can have an effect on customers as quickly as a few hours after eating. Typically, this is the fault of some form of cut or injury to the hands of those preparing food. While heat can kill staph, the by-product toxins produced from the life cycle itself cannot be destroyed and violent illness can result.
 
By taking advantage of a customer call-in system already in place, operators can monitor the early indicators of a foodborne illness outbreak. Most of us complete some form of data collection associated with these calls and the most important addition to your current practices can be as simple as looking for illness complaints similar in nature within a short time period.
 
Studying your data — instead of just logging it into your records — gives you the best indicator of trouble in your environment, even before the health department comes knocking.
 
Inspections are not just "inspections"
 
While all of our managers are geared up and ready for health department inspections, we should be a little more curious about the arrival of the health department. Inspections are not always routine health inspections, but managers often do not ask why the health inspector has arrived.
 
Developing the reflex to ask about the nature of the visit may give us a future vision to anticipate the beginnings of a foodborne outbreak issue. And if asked, the health department has to disclose the reason for the visit. Health inspectors can be in the location because of multiple customer illnesses or complaints of an illness. If we have our reflexes on autopilot, we may miss the actual early stages of a foodborne illness investigation. Health inspectors also receive routine product contamination alerts and recall information. There may be an active FDA investigation regarding contaminated product at the heart of the visit by the health inspector.
 
Again, some level of inquisitiveness on the part of your managers can give you an early signal of the potential for contaminated product. It is important to break the ‘routine reflexes' and take advantage of an early opportunity to spot a larger and developing situation – just through simple questions.
 
These tools already exist in your environment — if we can just think and act differently. Crisis management is getting out in front of issues before they grow. and early knowledge can be the key to controlling the brand impact to your restaurant.

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