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By Jayne Roth, M.P.H, REHS, EAS Independent Consultant

At the end of 2021, a survey fielded by the National Restaurant Association, showed that 78% of operators said their restaurant did not have enough employees to support customer demand. Understaffing is not only an economic issue, but also a food safety issue. With fewer staff, many safety and operating procedures get shorted in exchange for service expectations. This has the potential to increase risk of foodborne illnesses (FBIs).

Going out to dinner with family shouldn’t cause an impending feeling of danger, however, there are more than 250 types of pathogens that can cause Foodborne Illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes statistics each year of FBI, such as hospitalizations, and deaths – these numbers are in the thousands. FBIs can happen anywhere at any time, including in one’s own home. However, restaurants or any business serving food, have a higher expectation for FBI control. Understaffing due to Covid-19 can result in an increased risk and additional liabilities to food safety managers and their establishments.

It is important to realize that FBIs can happen to anyone and can have varying degrees of severity. An individual suffering from something they ate can be devastating. It may result in missed days of work – which for some families mean that they can’t afford to buy food for their dinner this week or are unable to care for their children. Or it may result in a several days stay in a hospital, among other outcomes.

The fear of contracting Covid-19 has caused millions of customers and employees to stay at home, resulting in a massive decrease of dollars spent on entertainment, gas, and food. This double-edged sword has reduced the number of customers going out to eat and, in turn, resulted in plummeting sales. Restaurants either can’t stay in business, or they reduce staff to do so. The number of restaurant employees dropped by 2.2 million from 2019-2020. Unfortunately, many restaurants attempt to maintain status quo, but with a potential price to those who eat at their establishment.

The value of the restaurant industry in 2020, after being adjusted due to Covid-19 is $659 billion ($240 billion less than projected). Restaurant managers and owners are trying to stay open and staffed, which, is commendable. However, a survey conducted by the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association found that 88% of respondents are operating with inadequate staffing. The public health sector has seen thousands of illnesses occur for decades and much needed new laws and regulations have been adopted to change industry practices to keep up with current science. Another learning experience is upon us, and we are discovering the hard way that the side effects of Covid-19 may be indirectly causing FBIs from the circumstances at hand.

A restaurant with an eight-page menu, for example, shouldn’t operate with a skeleton crew unless they have made other adjustments. Adequate staff are needed to operate the kitchen in a manner that is conducive to a controlled situation and ensures that corners are not cut on food safety practices.

It sounds simple, but the risks understaffing poses to public health needs to be addressed and quickly. Unfortunately, FBIs are occurring in understaffed foodservice establishments. Those employees who do continue to work, may not have the knowledge or experience needed to control food safety risks in the kitchen. However, having knowledge of food safety is NOT a predictor of proper food handling, especially with time constraints, poor training, and a general lack of resources.

One of the biggest contributors to foodborne illness outbreaks is human error. Often, these errors are unintentional. For example, an employee is rushing or forgets to take the internal temperature of the meat being cooked and inadvertently serves undercooked (potentially harmful) hamburger. Or they place packages of raw poultry on a high shelf in the walk-in cooler, and raw juices drip on (and contaminate) the ready-to-eat foods below. Or they leave a delivery of refrigerated products out in the hot sun for hours, making them unsafe and unusable. These human errors are magnified when restaurants are understaffed leaving even less time to follow critical food safety procedures.

Cutting corners, working while ill, and lack of general food safety knowledge can lead to devastating outcomes. In 2018, a British pub chef admitted to disregarding food regulations and indicated he was rushing while preparing Shepard’s pie which contributed to poor cooking, cooling, and reheating steps necessary to control potential pathogen survival or growth in food products. As a result, one person died and 30 people were sickened. The chef was ultimately given a four-month jail sentence, community service, and a large fine.

These situations have the potential to end up in litigation. If a restaurant does have insurance, it may not be sufficient to cover medical costs of ill customers. Foodservice establishments must be compliant with applicable rules and regulations to protect their reputation and ultimately their pocketbook. Ignoring proper food safety procedures has proven to be devastating.

The solution sounds easy, right? – Do not operate with inadequate staff. But what determines “inadequate staff?” I can surmise that deciding to close or reduce staff is one of the most difficult decisions for a manager or owner to make. Businesses are condensing their menus, which is a positive approach, as well as decreasing hours of operation and decreasing available tables.

Evaluating food processes to ‘build-out’ food safety risks by partnering with a food safety expert can decrease steps, save time, improve efficiency, and reduce food safety hazards. A food safety expert consultant can assist you with:

  • Auditing food safety procedures at the restaurant and manufacturer
  • Review in-house Food Safety Plans and HACCP plans
  • Evaluate crisis management plans
  • Provide legal base for food business start-ups
  • Determine applicable laws and regulations for specific food commodities
  • Assist in environmental sampling following positive tests by regulatory agencies

Covid-19 has provided numerous challenges to the food service industry, but none that cannot be addressed with proactive measures and intentional planning. Many of these challenges are molding the industry for the future. By understanding how these challenges could impact food safety, we can design a more resilient industry for the future.

But, we must begin today. Designing a culture of food safety, particularly in the time of COVID, includes training on best food safety practices, an audit of food facility operations and identification of risky procedures that could cause problems. EAS can help. Contact us to learn more about our food safety services available to the retail food industry.

Posted in Foods, Issue of the Month.