If your restaurant uses bulk food suppliers and bulk food distributors, you should require them to be certified to ensure a safe supply chain for your customers. Most large outbreaks are traced to food products that were contaminated before they reached the retail outlet or restaurant where they were served to customers.
Onions, tomatoes, romaine lettuce and sprouts are just a few of the foods that have been implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks. In fact, the latest outbreak haunting headlines is from chopped and bagged romaine lettuce linked to an E. coli outbreak that has spread to multiple states and sickened at least 35 people. The FDA has not pinpointed the source of contamination from any “specific farms or companies that grew, supplied and distributed the contaminated vegetables.” However, because romaine lettuce grows in Yuma, Arizona, this time of year, authorities believe the source of the outbreak is likely from this region. This story clearly demonstrates how difficult it can be to identify the source of contaminated food, and the challenge for restaurant operators regarding a safe food supply chain.
Unfortunately, when restaurant diners become sick, they usually blame the restaurant even though it may not have been the restaurant’s fault. Restaurants can’t prove the food was previously contaminated by bulk food suppliers or bulk food distributors unless there are multiple cases with the same illness strain from different locations.
To avoid this, restaurants should insist on sourcing food products that have gone through the strictest controls or certification process before they reach their final destination. This means tracking and ensuring food safety from both the bulk food suppliers for restaurants and the bulk food distributors. New laws such as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) have helped with supplier sanitation and safety, but locally sourced products can bypass these regulations, leaving a vulnerability in the supply chain. This can be avoided by requiring your food suppliers and food distributors to be certified.
As restaurant groups grow, it becomes increasingly important for them to take responsibility for where their ingredients come from and to hold bulk food suppliers and bulk food distributors accountable if they send contaminated food. Now please stop and re-read that last sentence again—it is so important! Do you know what processes and procedures your suppliers have in place to avoid food becoming contaminated? Keep reading to find out what restaurants should do to help avoid receiving contaminated food from a supplier or distributor.
The best way to ensure suppliers and distributors are following appropriate guidelines is to pay them a visit. A lot can be gleaned from an in-person visit. You will be able to see firsthand how clean they keep their production areas, review policies and procedures, and check if those procedures are being followed. Most large restaurant chain organizations do their own food supplier and distributor inspections, making sure they are following all of their food safety policies and procedures. To read more about foodservice distribution and areas of food safety risk, this is a great resource: Food Service Distribution: Maintaining the Cold Chain.
If you don’t have time to visit your suppliers in person, have them provide a recent third-party audit report. There are many companies that provide this service. You can leave it up to the supplier to hire the auditor or you can pay for the audit. If you pay for the audit, you might get a more honest report since a supplier won’t hire an auditor who will give a negative report. This avoids the conflict of interest created by a supplier paying for an audit and pressuring the auditor to produce a report that’s favorable to the supplier.
The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) is an industry-driven global food safety standard with the goal of protecting consumers from foodborne illness. By requiring your food suppliers and distributors to be GFSI certified, you are ensuring the products they are delivering to you have been subject to a sanitary standard that has been proven to prevent contamination. Insisting on GFSI certification is an easy thing to require without adding more costs to your bottom line. McDonald’s, for example, requires all their food suppliers to be GFSI certified. Since they have to source massive amounts of food, a problem from any part of their food supply chain could have drastic consequences. For more information on GFSI and McDonald’s, follow the links below.
If your restaurant operation uses bulk food suppliers and bulk food distributors, you should require them to be certified to make sure the supply chain is safe. Ask them about their food safety controls and certifications. Even better, visit their operations and take a tour to ensure strict food safety controls are in place. You can also require a third-party audit, and for peace of mind, you can also require that your bulk food suppliers and bulk food distributors be GFSI-certified. As brands get larger and have to source large amounts of the same product, GFSI certification becomes increasingly important.
In the past few years, we have seen supplier-based outbreaks affect Jimmy John’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Sheetz, Jack in the Box and Chipotle. In some cases, the restaurant brand never fully recovers from negative press related to foodborne illness, even though it can be traced back to the supplier or distributor. It’s not good enough to simply blame them. Each restaurant has a responsibility to serve safe food. That includes how they are preparing, serving and sourcing their products.
In case you have contaminated food that has made your customers sick, you should read our article on Restaurant Crisis Management: Are You Prepared for an Imminent Health Hazard?