How to Establish a Food Safety Culture in Your Restaurant

All restaurants should create and implement a food safety culture that emphasizes safety, cleanliness and following well-established protocols.
All restaurants should create and implement a food safety culture that emphasizes safety, cleanliness and following well-established protocols.
Oregon Department of Agriculture

The food service industry was shaken when restaurant chain Chipotle had multiple, widespread food safety outbreaks, spanning various states. The incidents understandably made consumers anxious and, as a result, Chipotle’s sales plummeted.  It took considerable time and effort to reassure a nervous public that it was, indeed, safe to eat at Chipotle again.

Their tagline, food with integrity, was meaningless when various mistakes were sickening their guests. During (and after) these outbreaks, Chipotle had to review its protocols. Among other things, they sanitized impacted restaurants, examined their food sources, and reminded employees of safety protocols—like not to come to work when ill.

All restaurants should create and implement a food safety culture that emphasizes safety, cleanliness and following well-established protocols. Ensure that your food safety culture that starts at the top, with buy-in from leadership. Demonstrate that food safety is a priority that must be taken seriously by every employee, during every shift, and with every meal. By emphasizing the importance of food safety, your employees will work continuously toward the mission that you’ve implemented.

Every restaurant experiences kitchen chaos—it’s the nature of the industry. Busy shifts mean some employees may take occasional “short-cuts." In my role as a food safety trainer and inspector, I often see examples of this—such as employees not washing their hands regularly because they “don’t want to walk all the way across the kitchen” to the handwashing sink. Or they use the same board to cut raw poultry and then ready-to-eat foods like salad greens, cross-contaminating the vegetables with dangerous bacteria. Perhaps they don’t bother using a food thermometer to check the internal temperatures of the hamburgers they’re grilling and, as a result, serve undercooked meat. Any of these decisions could result in a foodborne illness incident, potentially harming (or even killing) your guests.

Major foodborne illness incidents and outbreaks seem to be increasing. Even innocent or careless mistakes can sicken guests and ruin a restaurant’s reputation. Foodborne illnesses are 100 percent preventable, and could be avoided if restaurants—and other food service organizations—adopted a food safety culture.  This includes providing ongoing education/training, regularly holding inspections, and implementing proper food safety protocols. Ensure that you’re operating safelyfor every shift, with every meal.

To create and maintain a food safety culture, your restaurant should:

Start at the top. Ensure that your company leaders are practicing what they preach, and setting a good example for employees to follow. Demonstrate a strong commitment to food safety, and emphasize that anything less than 100 percent effort simply won’t be tolerated.

Explain the reasons behind the rules. Don’t just tell employees what to do. Tell them why to do it. Explain rules around food safety, such as as why they shouldn’t use the same platter for raw meat and cooked meat. Explain the danger of using the same board to prepare seafood for one dish and poultry for another—which could be deadly if that poultry is served to a guest with seafood allergies. When you explain why it’s so important to follow each specific protocol, your employees will understand the reasoning behind the rules and will be more likely (and more willing) to comply.

Train your staff. Food safety training and education should be an ongoing effort for all employees, whether they’ve been with your organization for two hours or two decades. Emphasize why food safety is—and will continue to be—a priority for your organization. Provide continuous updates and refresher courses for all staff to keep the food safety protocols top-of-mind.

Provide the proper equipment. Stock your commercial kitchen with the necessary tools to safely prepare and serve food. Ensure there are calibrated food thermometers at every work station so employees can easily (and regularly) check food temperatures.  Provide plenty of cutting boards so employees can use some for raw proteins, others for ready-to-eat foods, separate ones for allergy-friendly food prep, etc.

Keep temperature logs. Insist that employees take the temperature of foods at specific times—e.g., upon arrival, during the cooking process, etc. Make proper record-keeping part of your employees’ regular routine.

Inspect food to make sure it’s safe upon arrival. If food isn’t safe when it arrives at your facility, there’s nothing your team can do to make it safe later. Empower employees to refuse potentially unsafe foods.

Conduct inspections to ensure that all employees are complying with proper protocols. Conductself-inspections regularly to ensure kitchens are sanitary, food safety rules are being followed, and mistakes aren’t being made. It’s also valuable to hire third-party inspectors to examine your facility and observe your employees in action. An objective outsider often sees things that internal teams may overlook. Their feedback can be hugely beneficial in helping avoid foodborne illnesses, infractions from the health department, and other potential issues.

Avoid careless mistakes. Remind all employees that even seemingly “minor” mistakes could sicken (or even kill) guests. For instance, they shouldn’t use the same towel to wipe the dirty floor and then wash the tables. Insist that they wash their hands carefully and often. Don’t allow them to wear their kitchen aprons into the restroom.

Follow food allergy protocols. When preparing and serving food for a food-allergic guest, make sure your employees double check ingredients, use clean gloves/knives/equipment, prep the food in an allergy-friendly area, and avoid careless (potentially harmful) mistakes, such as garnishing a plate with pesto when serving a nut or dairy-allergic guest.

Building, enforcing, promoting and embracing a food safety culture doesn’t need to be expensive, time-consuming or complicated. By creating a corporate culture focused on food safety, you’ll keep your employees, guests and business much safer and healthier.

Francine L. Shaw is President of Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc., which offers a robust roster of services, including consulting, food safety education, food safety inspections, crisis management training, writing norovirus policies for employees, writing norovirus clean-up procedures, curriculum development, responsible alcohol service training, and more. The Food Safety Training Solutions team has more than 100 combined years of industry experience in restaurants, casinos, and convenience stores and has helped numerous clients prevent foodborne illnesses. Francine has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the Dr. Oz Show, the Huffington Post, iHeartRadio, and Food Safety News.