Food suppliers are often not the first to be blamed when a foodborne illness outbreak happens. Unfortunately, in many of these cases, restaurants are typically the ones in news headlines and targets for litigation. The truth is that pathogens often enter a restaurant via contaminated food products delivered by food vendors. And just reviewing the CDC’s final update on the romaine lettuce outbreak of O157:H7 infection in 2018 is pretty scary if you think about the scope of the impact. So, what can a restaurant do to protect itself and customers from foodborne illness outbreaks and associated liability? A good strategy to manage risk is to do the following three things:
As part of a good food safety practice, responsible restaurant operators have written policies and procedures for food safety, and they provide ongoing food safety training to employees. They undergo internal and third-party food safety inspections to ensure food safety guidelines and policies are followed. As part of your food safety program, you should also include an inspection of all food vendors, to ensure that food safety is just as much of a priority for them as it is for your restaurant.
An inspection of a food supplier should include a physical inspection of the supplier’s manufacturing and packaging operations as well as any recent inspection reports conducted by the USDA and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). If you encounter a supplier that says no to you conducting an inspection, then take your business elsewhere. It’s not worth the risk and is actually a red flag. After all, if they’re running a high-quality operation with concern for food safety, then they shouldn’t have anything to hide.
The best way to protect your restaurant is to have a hold harmless agreement that indemnifies, defends and holds harmless your restaurant from claims by third parties for consumption of any contaminated product provided by a vendor. The agreement should state that food suppliers will provide food products that are free from contamination and in compliance with state and federal regulations for food safety. If a customer reports a foodborne illness complaint or, even worse, there’s a confirmed foodborne illness outbreak suspected from your restaurant, then the hold harmless agreement should help to move responsibility from your restaurant to the food supplier.
Restaurant operators and managers should look for food suppliers that are GFSI certified. The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) sets food safety standards for manufacturers and farms. The overall goal of GFSI is to provide safe food for consumers. There are a number of food safety standards that are recognized by the GFSI. A food supplier can select a standard to be certified to and then receive training on the requirements. Next, they implement the standard and document their processes. Finally, the food supplier undergoes a third-party audit and receives certification. For clarification, the GFSI doesn’t provide the certifications. Rather, it recognizes certain food safety standards that the GFSI’s global network of manufacturers and retailers accept.
By partnering with a food supplier that has been GFSI certified, you are further protecting your restaurant from contaminated food products, potential foodborne illness, litigation and liability.
As you review your food safety program and practices, take some time to look at your food suppliers and the controls you have in place regarding receiving safe food products from them. In addition to the food safety policies you have implemented in your restaurant, the best reason to take a closer look at your suppliers and supply chain is to help further protect your brand from liability related to accusations of foodborne illness.