Nearly 300 people got sick after eating at a McDonalds in Brevard, NC, in what authorities believe is a case of norovirus spread through human contact. This is different from the other recent widespread foodborne illness outbreak at McDonalds, with 400 people – across 15 states – becoming ill after eating the fast food chain’s salads, which were contaminated with the Cyclospora parasite and distributed by supplier Fresh Express. 

Around the same time, a filthy Popeye’s restaurant was shut down by the Detroit Department of Health after horrifying pictures of the restaurant surfaced: mold in the kitchen, cockroaches and worms crawling around the floors, and disgusting conditions in the restaurant’s kitchen, bathrooms and dining area.

And then Chipotle Mexican Grill – no stranger to foodborne illness crises – is facing yet another foodborne illness outbreak. Nearly 700 people who dined at an Ohio-based Chipotle became ill. That restaurant location temporarily shut its doors to thoroughly clean the facility amid the surrounding investigation. 

The restaurant chains all faced serious foodborne illness outbreaks over the span of a week or two. In addition, this spring and summer, we’ve seen romaine lettuce contaminated with E.coli sicken 200 people and kill several others. Tainted pre-cut produce, contaminated wraps – foodborne illness seems prevalent lately.  In fact, more than 100,000 people get food poisoning every day. That statistic is staggering and sobering.

It’s clear that the current food safety process is broken, and needs to be fixed.

In my role as a tech executive in the food industry, I regularly meet with restaurant owners, food safety leaders and other industry executives. They know how broken the American food safety system is. But they don’t know how to fix it.

In many U.S. restaurants, food safety is an oxymoron. There’s a growing culture of neglect in the food industry, and we – as an industry – need to find effective solutions that are also affordable, attainable, and user-friendly. 

In my ongoing discussions with top food safety executives, I’m not sure food safety is a big enough priority inside the C-suite. CEOs and CFOs are understandably concerned about margin pressures, changing taste, staff turnover, and tremendous competition. But failing to prioritize food safety is short-sighted.  Every restaurant operator is just one innocent error away from a massive foodborne illness crisis that could sicken or kill their guests and ruin their businesses. It’s time to make food safety a focal point and not just a check-the-box throwaway that restaurant leaders place low on their priority lists.

Frighteningly, 50 percent to 60 percent of restaurants do nothing to protect their businesses, foods and guests from foodborne illness. The average general managers of an FSR, QSR, diner, and other eateries are supposed to start each day with a “daily operations line checklist.” Unfortunately, that list is often buried in a logbook or clipboard in the back-of-house office. And, the questions are the same 100 items in the same order, day after day, shift after shift. This approach hasn’t changed in decades – and it’s about time that it does. There’s absolutely no accountability with these checklists. Employees can say they’ve done the boring, time-consuming checklists, but there’s no way to prove that they did them carefully or accurately – or at all.

Pencil whipping, or cheating on inspection forms, is prevalent in restaurants nationwide. People within the industry would like to say that this is not true but, in many instances, employees skip the checklists because they’re busy with other tasks or just not interested in taking the time to complete them.

It’s bad enough that internal inspections aren’t being completed in many U.S. restaurants. Compounding the problem, restaurants are also skimping on audits by outside inspectors. While some restaurants invest in regular, even monthly inspections by outside experts, most don’t. In fact, some restaurants have outside inspectors just once or twice a year. And that’s a problem. Food safety experts can point out infractions and potential problems before they become full-blown crises. 

Hiring outside safety inspectors is an expense, to be sure, but it’s a worthwhile investment. And – just ask Chipotle – taking preventative measures is far more affordable than dealing with the aftermath of a foodborne illness outbreak: paying attorney’s fees, settling lawsuits, losing customers, seeing sales decline, and watching stock prices plummet. 

Another part of the multi-faceted problem is the lack of food safety training. Rarely do employees think about the fact that people can get sick from their careless practices. Maybe they didn’t take the time to wash their hands after using the restroom or touching a germy cellphone. Or, they rushed through food prep and used the same board to cut raw chicken and also to chop fresh vegetables for a salad. Maybe they used the same rag to clean a spill from the floor and then wipe down tables. For some, it’s their first job out of school, and they don’t understand the importance of food safety protocols. Perhaps they did genuinely forget to wash their hands after taking out the garbage. And, it’s likely that their managers don’t provide regular reminders about important food safety protocols.

Most companies fear a poor health department inspection, but many don’t truly think about the enormous responsibility of protecting their customers – every day, on every shift. But consider this: Nobody goes back to a restaurant where they got sick. Every day, restaurants lose customers because an employee made a careless error. Customers in Ohio, Michigan, or elsewhere are violently ill and preparing to broadcast their stories on social media. This negative publicity will hurt a restaurant’s business.

If customers truly knew how little most restaurants do to keep them safe, they might never dine out again.  If they realized that an organization’s food safety protocols were based on paper forms that are largely ignored and virtually never reviewed, maybe they would be more discerning in their dining choices.

Restaurant industry leaders need to take food safety more seriously. Part of that shift includes utilizing new technologies – ranging from digital smart checklists to automated sensors – to help transform team members’ daily behavior. But first, we must rethink organizational priorities starting at the C-suite. We need restaurants to shift from a culture of neglect to one of food safety. And we need that to happen now.

About the author: Manik Suri, co-founder and CEO of CoInspect, vows to make food safer and filing cabinets obsolete. He contends the switch from paper checklists to digital solutions powers food safety, quality assurance, and standards management for restaurants and food manufacturers. 

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)