October 5, 2020

Restaurant Food Safety Fails When Training Fails

As food safety lawyers, people have been asking us (from a distance) how worried they should be about COVID-19 and the safety of their takeout food? While we can’t tell them about viral transmission rates via various sources – we’re lawyers, not scientists – we can tell them what we have learned from years of representing people sickened by germs in restaurant food. Good sanitary conditions and safe food preparation processes and procedures (food safety plans) are very important…but it all fails when employee training fails.

Restaurant Food Safety Fails When Training Fails

Obviously, when food safety plans are bad (for example, if they do not include proper testing of food storage areas for correct temperature control or mandate specific locations to keep raw foods from cross-contaminating cooked foods) then germs can spread. Too often, these germs are very dangerous, even deadly, germs like E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Cyclospora and Hepatitis A. We can now add the SARS-CoV-2 (Coronavirus) to that list. But large restaurant and fast food chains typically do have food safety plans, usually written by food safety experts, to prevent these germs from spreading. Even small family-owned restaurants, if well-run, have these kinds of plans in place.

So, with all these places having food safety plans ready to go, why did the CDC link 489 separate foodborne illness outbreaks to restaurant food in 2017? We believe the answer lies substantially in poor training. This week, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) levied a $25 million dollar fine, as well as deferred criminal charges, on Chipotle Mexican Grill for food poisoning outbreaks that sickened over 1,000 people from 2015-2018.

Our law firm represents a number of those sickened in these outbreaks and we can tell you – both from what was revealed in the DOJ action and from our experience with these cases – that what led to these huge outbreaks was, in large part, serious deficiencies in the training of Chipotle employees. Chipotle certainly had a food safety plan in place. A plan that did have its share of shortcomings and missed opportunities, but it still should have been able to prevent at least some of these illnesses.

The key reason it failed was because employees were not properly trained to follow the planIt’s the same thing as if a hospital had a written plan that all employees must wash their hands thoroughly with soap for 20 seconds to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but they did not properly train their staff how and when to wash and did not follow up to make sure staff were doing it and doing it correctly. In this same way, food safety plans are worthless if not taught or followed. This is what happened at Chipotle’s restaurants.

As U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna stated in the DOJ release, “Chipotle failed to ensure that its employees both understood and complied with its food safety protocols, resulting in hundreds of customers across the country getting sick.” Chipotle, after these disastrous outbreaks, did end up drastically overhauling their food safety training, auditing, and staffing protocols and hiring James Marsden, a well-regarded food safety expert, to head their food safety team. That overhaul so far seems to be effective, as they have not been linked to any outbreaks since.

This one example of government action, and a restaurant chain finally starting to do the things it needed to do to serve safe food, is not an indication that the problem of poor training has been solved industry-wide. We know from all the ongoing food poisoning outbreaks linked to restaurants that this is far from the case.

In fact, we have been hearing reports of chain restaurants operating take-out during the pandemic where every single employee is wearing masks under instead of over their noses and employees are handling money and credit cards with the same gloves that they handle food preparation and serving. These chains undoubtedly have plans that should prevent these unsafe practices, so training is most definitely failing.

Rest assured, inadequate training in food safety at restaurants is not only increasing the risk of transmitting COVID-19, but continues the risk of hundreds of potentially deadly outbreaks of the “typical” E. coli, Salmonella and other foodborne illnesses. Every single one of these outbreaks could be prevented by proper food safety plans that are implemented by well-trained food preparers.

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