A third-party food safety program for restaurants that want to show travelers that they adhere to U.S. food code standards is taking root in Central and South America, and is looking to expand into Southeast Asia in the near future.
It’s called Cocina Verify, a company that grew out of its founder’s experience traveling south of the border and too often getting sick from contaminated food and water. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says millions of Americans who travel to less-developed countries are stricken by TD or Travelers’ Diarrhea.
M. Allan Daly, the founder of Cocina Verify and its CEO, came out of Peru only twice in seven trips without getting sick. As Daly puts it, Peru has been on the “top of the world” for the past few years, gaining accolades for their food and flavors.
Peru is not just for aging hippies climbing Machu Picchu anymore. It’s become competitive with its larger surrounding neighbors, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and even Mexico. Peruvian food has captured world attention. But it remains a destination that travelers warn one another about.
“I think there are a lot of opportunities to improve the overall food safety picture in Peru and other Latin American countries,” Daly told Food Safety News. “We have found it difficult finding restaurant owners in Peru who are concerned with food safety or concerned wit the need to provide clean drinking water in their restaurants.”
“Their food is delicious and I hope they begin to embrace the importance of food safety more and more,” Daly added. Tourists and business travelers will respond positively to food safety improvements, just as they are responding positively to the Cocina Verify program.
Daly was formerly on the faculty of the College of Agriculture and National Resources s at the University of Maryland, He put the Cocina Verify business model together from what he knew personally and from surrounding himself with food safety experts.
Cocina Verify restaurants agree to have their water tested and their employees trained in food safety with guidance from the food codes written by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the State of California.
Food safety experts from Cocina Verify conduct on-site to make sure the restaurant’s water is safe to drink, teach employees proper food safety protocols using the ServSafe food safety program, and perform food safety audits subject to U.S. food safety standards.
Restaurants that pass are then featured on the Cocina Verify website. Unlike customer review sites, like TripAdvisor or Yelp, the information on Cocina Verify comes solely from its own team of experienced certified food safety professions. It is not a peer-review site.
The initial targeted counties include Panama, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Belize. Each is popular with American tourists, but are not known for their adherence to food safety standards or enforcement.
In these countries, Daly says there is little knowledge going in on the importance of food safety, but they are open to learning.
“Once they understand that by not following proper food safety, their businesses can be destroyed with a foodborne illness outbreak, they begin tor think more about it,” Daly said.
In these countries, he says the main hurdles for acquiring Cocina Verify status are “not having the basic necessities,” such as a dedicated hand-washing sink, hot water, and a method for sanitizing dishes and utensils. That may take time. And in these counties, just because a restaurant projects a “fine dining” image does not mean that equates to the kitchen and the staff following proper protocol.
Daly says these countries may have food codes on the books that sound good, but government enforcement is lacking.
“We have inspected restaurants that would have been shut down immediately in the United States based on several major violations, yet were inspected two weeks prior by local officials with no mention in their health reports of anything in the kitchens,” Daly said. “That’s where the trust and confidence of Cocina Verify is going to pay dividends for travelers and the restaurant owners who choose verified.
“Food safety isn’t about perfection — its about risk reduction. Our mission is to increase consumers’ trust and confidence in their dining experiences abroad. While we cannot guarantee that guests won’t get sick at verified restaurants, it’s about risk reduction, and making educated decisions based on which restaurants have passed stringent food safety requirements.”
Daly says he is not finding much difference between urban and rural areas of Central America as far as the ability of a property to meet their food safety standards. One type of food site is a problem, though.
“Open kitchens are not allowed in the Cocina Verify program for many reasons,” Daly explains. “When you start with an open kitchen, you are cooking with one had tied behind your back when it comes to ensuring you are serving safe food. It’s not impossible, but having an open kitchen invites (literally with animals) a lot of potential problems into the restaurant kitchen.”
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