Food Safety Training Steps Up in Restaurants

Article excerpt

ATLANTA -- All it takes is one mistake.

An employee doesn't wash his hands before handling food, or a hamburger is not fully cooked, allowing deadly bacteria to thrive. A customer falls ill.

A case of food poisoning can be a disaster for any restaurant. At a chain restaurant, the ripple effect can become a chain wide tidal wave. Jack in the Box watched its customers base shrink and its stock price tumble from $14 to $3.25 a share after tainted hamburger made hundreds sick several years ago. With stakes that high, chain restaurants are finding that food safety training is a necessity, even with the high costs that come with constant employee turnover. "We are finding chain restaurants heavily committed to training and certification," said Cindy Wilson, communications director of the National Restaurant Association's Education Foundation, which offers the leading training program in the industry, ServSafe. "Church's Chicken, Ryan's Family Steak House, Hooters of America and Taco Bell are all making huge training efforts." A review of restaurant inspection scores in 16 counties in metro Atlanta show that chain restaurants generally rank among the best in safe food handling. Health inspectors credit strong training for that performance. Beyond good health inspections, the goal of quality assurance programs that rely heavily on worker training is to avoid the kind of financial and public relations fallout that Burger King and Jack in the Box suffered because of food-borne illness incidents. When the federal government ordered the largest meat recall in the nation's history in August after 16 people became ill from contaminated hamburger in Colorado, Hudson Beef products had to be pulled from Burger King's stock. For 48 hours, 1,650 stores in 28 states could sell only chicken and fish until Burger King could find another supplier. In addition to lost sales, the firm paid for full- page advertisements in 200 newspapers to reassure customers about the safety of its food. For the supplier, the consequences were more profound. Hudson closed a Nebraska processing facility and later agreed to be purchased by Tyson Foods after announcing that quarterly earnings would be down 30 percent because of the meat recall. In 1993, four children died and hundreds of people were sickened in the Northwest after eating Jack in the Box burgers tainted with a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria. Nationally, sales dropped 40 percent after the outbreak and hundreds of lawsuits were filed against the chain. Settlements disclosed ranged from $19,999 to $15.6 million. Some suits are pending, but the company has made a financial comeback and is now the fifth-largest burger chain in the nation, with a share price close to $19. Some in the industry look to technology, as well as training, to avoid food safety nightmares. For instance, McDonald's Corp. in Oak Brook, Ill., recently approved implementation of a new hand-washing system that requires employees to input an identification number into a computer pad each time they wash their hands. The system then controls the flow of water, forcing employees to wash for 20 seconds. But experts say the public's best protection goes by the unwieldy name "Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Points. …