As a restaurant inspector, it never ceases to amaze me how cavalier some restaurants are with their food-handling practices. I’ve talked with so many owners who think foodborne illness can never happen to them despite the laundry list of critical violations they racked up on their last inspection. Unfortunately, it takes an outbreak that results in personal injury to their customers and lawsuits that result in paying major damages, which can often lead to closing the location, before they are willing to make necessary, lasting changes. Lately it seems that Salmonella has been slipping past ignorant food handlers and right to consumers’ mouths. Many food handlers don’t understand that they probably have Salmonella in their kitchens every day, and if proper food safety procedures are not followed, Salmonella will end up on customers’ plates. Firefly and Iguana Joe’s are the most recent victims of a Salmonella outbreak. Firefly’s outbreak resulted in at least 294 confirmed illnesses with a possible source being chorizo. Iguana Joe’s currently has a dozen people sick with seven being children. The source of the Iguana Joe’s outbreak is still unknown, but looking at the restaurant’s last few inspections, the source is probably the lack of basic food safety understanding by its cooks, managers, and owner. When the health department started its investigation, it found 27 violations in 1 inspection. Inspectors went back the next day and found another 29 demerits. Two days later, they returned and recorded 24 demerits and discarded 45 pounds of food. Clearly, Iguana Joe’s doesn’t understand what food safety is, but the restaurant still remained open until the health department returned the next day and identified another 27 violations. Finally, the restaurant was closed. Given the complete lack of respect for the food they are handling there, I’m surprised it has taken this long for an outbreak to happen at Iguana Joe’s. The restaurant eventually received a perfect score, prompting the health department to reopen Iguana Joe’s with no plans for a follow-up. My favorite case study of a restaurant’s complete disregard for the food it handles is Chili’s from 2003. This Salmonella outbreak resulted in 300 people sickened, including many of Chili’s employees across multiple locations in the area. Not only were the locations closed for periods of time, but the health department also sent an invoice to Chili’s for $32,000 to reimburse them for the time and resources they used during the investigation. Restaurant food handlers and management need to respect the pathogens that they accept into their kitchens every day. These people are the last line of defense against foodborne illness between the pathogens and their customers. Failing to recognize the consequences results in sick people and restaurant closures, sometimes for good. Food safety plans should be followed and verified daily to ensure staff are on track. To not have a food safety plan is reckless and irresponsible. Restaurants can look to HACCP principles to develop a plan. All staff should be familiar with the plans, with regular training and internal audits to prove the plan is being followed.  Restaurant owners: Don’t wait until Salmonella slips past your defenses before you begin to develop a plan. Don’t let your restaurant be another Salmonella victim. 

  • Jim Mann

    Interesting. Intuitively, what % of the illnesses do you think could have been avoided by an effective hand hygiene process?

  • scorpio grani

    Hand washing, cooking and holding food at the proper temp are all equally important in keeping food safe for consumption. I feed close to 200 children everyday and I am always, always washing my hands!! These little ones are at the high end of the spectrum when it comes to food borne illnesses and I am the last line of defense they have!! It doesn’t matter if I am tired, doesn’t matter what I might have going on at home, food safety for these little ones comes first!! Think all the managers, cooks, ect at these restaurants need to be fired!! Everyone thinks it can’t/won’t happen to them, its no big deal, well YES IT IS!!

  • Dennis Keith

    Thanks for the comments. I agree with you Scorpio grani. All food operations need to have an all of the above approach to food safety. Effective hand washing is extremely important, but equally important are the critical violations. Temperature abuse, lack of sanitizer, cross-contamination, etc. They can all lead to food borne illness by themselves. There are restaurant operations that insist on making their employees wash their hands every hour regardless if they need to. It’s probably a good thing to do to keep their minds on good hand hygiene, but it doesn’t mean anything if they have raw meats stored over ready to eat foods, or raw chicken sitting on the counter at 60º. These operations are the last line of defense and they need to have a plan to address all areas of preventing food borne illness.