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    Food Safety Paramount, Especially in C-store Business

    Take these precautions to reduce the chance of a food borne illness outbreak at convenience stores.

    By Dean Dirks, Dirks & Associates

    In a recent Better Business Bureau consumer trust survey, consumer confidence in businesses declined in 13 of the 15 industries measured. Overall, trust was down 14 percent from last September's survey. One of the main reasons is higher fuel prices that had a wave affect on all industries. If consumers mistrust business in general, only imagine what they think of the c-store industry. In addition, the convenience store foodservice segment has to overcome the "gas station" image to fight for consumer confidence.

    The last thing a retailer or our industry needs is a food borne illness outbreak. It is very hard or impossible to overcome an outbreak. We all remember the nightmare Jack in the Box went through even though the responsibility was ultimately found with a supplier selling beef with E-coli in it. Consumers didn't nor should they care about whose fault it was, Jack in the Box was the corporate face and took the brunt of the blame.

    Arby's is in the middle of an alleged salmonella outbreak in Georgia against individuals who became seriously ill with salmonella serotype montevideo food poisoning after allegedly consuming contaminated sandwiches purchased at an Arby's Restaurant located in Valdosta, Ga.

    Attorneys filed five lawsuits against Arby's Restaurants; Beavers' Inc., the franchisee; Globe Food Equipment Co., makers of the food slicer used at the Valdosta Arby's restaurants; and two additional defendants, a marketing firm and a food supplier.

    As you can see, litigators are filing law suits against everyone both involved and barely involved. How can a slicer company be responsible for a salmonella outbreak? In our industry that means they would go after the Shells and Exxons of the world and work their way down.

    Now that I've scared you sufficiently, how do you avoid a food borne illness?

    -- In your weekly newsletters or communications with employees, post articles about other retailer's misfortunes or law suits. The point isn't to smear other retailers but to keep the fear in the minds of your team. Don't let associates go a day without thinking about it.

    -- Require your district managers, store managers and foodservice managers to become Serve Safe certified. This is a very intense course administered by the National Restaurant Association. Not only will it give them a great education it will scare them so they understand the danger they are dealing with on a day to day basis.

    -- Develop food safety audits to be completed daily at the store level and have regular audits completed at the district level. Record temperatures of refrigeration and product every four hours, date and rotate products, constant hand washing to name a few. All foodservice professionals know what needs to be done and inspected. The question being, are you doing it?

    -- Develop a food borne illness reporting procedure. Have a form on site that collects ONLY contact information and train your associates to NEVER comment other than to take the information. In addition, make sure the customer is given the corporate office's contact information.

    -- Make it a policy that only the food service director or vice president (senior management) follows up on the call to the customer.

    -- A scripted list of questions should be used to record the customer's comments. This list should be developed by a foodservice professional and reviewed by your attorney.

    -- If more than three customers call with the same symptoms then you legally have a food borne outbreak. The next step is to get the County Health Department involved. The worst thing you can try to do is hide it. Health departments can be very knowledgeable and in many cases catch the problem before it goes forward. If you get in a lawsuit the worst thing you want to do is in court is have to admit you didn't contact the health department right away.

    -- If you feel you may have an outbreak in progress, the senior foodservice manager needs to involve the owner. Don't let him or her get blindsided. Legal and the press will have to be dealt with. The worst thing imaginable is a store manager discussing the problem with the press.

    Food borne illness can be avoided by education and day to day focus. Make the assumption it is going to happen, so you have the systems in place to reduce the legal and public relations exposure if it does.

    Other columns by Dean Dirks:

    Marketing in Today's Foodservice Environment

    Learning from the Competition

    Managing Foodservice Labor

    The 1 Percent Edge

    If you have a question for Dean, please email CSNews at [email protected].

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