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New E.coli fears give operators sanitation worries

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If your iPod keeps pulling up random selections from “K-tel’s Monster Hits of the ’90s,” don’t panic. You’ve  just been sucked into a time warp that snagged us during the National Restaurant Association’s convention.

There we were, surrounded by vendors hawking the latest in restaurant technology, listening to pundits foreshadow the next big trends in menus and operations. Yet whenever restaurateurs in the audience asked a question of the experts on stage, the calendar was reset. Invariably, the conversation refocused on the mega-issue of yesteryear, when Chipotle and Starbucks were nothing and Boston Market was the concept to watch. The chatter back then dealt with Jack in the Box’s shot of surviving. Ditto for Clinton’s.

The topic everyone wanted to discuss? Food safety. Were there new and improved ways of safeguarding guests from potentially lethal germs?

The renewed interest in the ultimate Restaurant Industry 101 topic was underscored when our partner in an industry conference, Sysco, surveyed emerging chains to see which issues operators wanted us to explore. No. 1 on the list: food safety.

There’s no mystery as to why food safety again tops restaurateurs’ list of concerns. Let us be the ventriloquist dummies: “If a food safety lapse could destroy Chipotle of all restaurants, what could it do to me?”

It’s prudent that restaurateurs are asking themselves such questions. As we’ve reported online, they can’t count on nature nor the antithesis of natural forces—government—to provide the protections that make that question academic.

The worst news: Researchers in Canada have found a strain of the E. coli virus that can survive the cook temperatures experts say is the germ’s kryptonite. They’ve said, at least since the high-profile outbreaks of the 1990s, that an internal temp of 165 degrees will turn the E. coli bacteria in a burger into harmless micro-filler. Now, scientists are saying the meat might not be safe if you’re at a heat level that’ll melt glass. They don’t yet know how high you have to go to kill this new strain.

The traditional 165-degree safeguard now has a huge asterisk by it. But that danger may be far-fetched compared with the daily dangers governments are foisting on restaurateurs and their guests by underfunding local sanitation-inspection programs.

Jurisdictions, pressed like every entity to cut costs, look at the returns they can expect from dollars spent. The ideal ROI for any food safety program: zero. The best program delivers nothing—no outbreaks, no lapses, no one getting sick, no problems. What’s more inviting to a bean counter with a scalpel than a costly program with an ROI of zero?

No wonder jurisdictions like Colorado are curbing their watchdog responsibilities. The state recently pushed through a measure that forbids counties from publicizing the results of sanitation inspections—in effect keeping consumers in the dark until the state comes up with a uniform system of communication. In the meantime, a jurisdiction can’t so much as post a letter grade in the window.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a restaurateur himself, refused to veto the law. For that, we’d like to give him a slap to the head, even if restaurants in the state supported passage. But we give him a thumbs-up for suggesting in his explanation that he may yet man up and let counties decide what consumers should know about where they eat.

To him and others, we say: Wake up. The more you can assure the public you’re not as vulnerable to food safety problems as late 2015 Chipotle was, the better off the industry will be.

To everyone else, we express our sincerest wishes that you enjoy “Nirvana: Why the 1990s were the ’90s.”

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