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Foodservice: Front lines of food safety require sacrifices

Opinion

Restaurant managers, wait staff, cooks and kitchen workers are on the front lines of food safety every day.

His day had just begun but already he was headed back home. The look of defeat in his eyes, the slight grimace on his face, and the sweat on his brow gave it all away: He was going home sick.

During the past several months I have had the privilege of interviewing and surveying dozens of foodservice workers about their food safety practices as part of my doctoral research. The man before me was no exception, especially as I learned more about his story and the potential ramifications of taking a sick day.

For many workers in America today, taking a sick day is no big deal because of wiggle room within salaried positions. However, for both foodservice managers and hourly employees, this is simply not the case. The manager is left shorthanded and the employee loses a day’s wages. Managers and employees in the foodservice industry have a legal and moral obligation not to work when sick, because of the risk of contaminating food, customers and other employees. The decision to take a sick day can stress both managers and employees, but is always the right thing to do, nonetheless.

As the interview with this foodservice worker progressed, I uncovered the true difficulty of his situation.

He was working at a low-wage job to provide for a young toddler with another child on the way. I’m not sure of all the details of his circumstances. I can’t say whether missing this one day of work meant an eviction notice, a missed light bill, or sacrificing food to pay for diapers. Whether his decision to leave work was of his own volition or that of his manager I don’t know.

With many foodservice jobs lacking paid sick leave, servers, kitchen workers and others are often left with the unpleasant choice of working under the radar while ill to make ends meet or staying home and losing money. All it takes to ruin a wedding reception or awards banquet is one sick employee.

One fact I am confident of is that this man and his employer were making sacrifices to ensure the health of the public.

If we’re honest with ourselves, food safety can be inconvenient at times. Other employees I interviewed shared how their hands took a beating from washing them so often.

Before starting to work on my Ph.D., I worked in quality assurance at a produce factory. My job would sometimes involve rewashing thousands of pounds of cut vegetables because the produce “wash water” concentration was too high or too low. Of course, this would generally happen at 10 p.m. when workers were anxious to go home, leading to tension and pushback.

The late Dave Theno, who was vice president of product safety for Jack in the Box immediately following the 1993 E. coli outbreak, faced even more pushback for his overhaul of food safety standards. Theno managed to create an uproar from just about every part of the meat industry, from the slaughterhouses to the fast food chains. His new protocols raised worries about costs and compromises in product taste. Yet, he was willing to forgo his comfort zone to ensure the safety of the consumer.

Adhering to food safety principles can stretch both foodservice managers and employees, halt the production process, and run contrary to conventional practices. But the sacrifice is worth it. Here’s to ordinary restaurant workers like the man I interviewed and food safety officers like Dave Theno who are willing to sacrifice for the health and safety of others.

About the author: Jeff Clark is a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Arkansas working under professor Philip Crandall. Jeff’s research interests include understanding how food safety culture, empathic concern for foodborne illness victims, and persuasive technology affect food safety practices at the industry level. Before grad school, he tried just about every job in the food industry, including busser, server, prep cook, caterer, meat clerk and quality assurance technician in produce processing. He is happily married to his high school sweetheart who he gets to jam with on the ukulele when he’s not collecting data or writing manuscripts.

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