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Creating a Food Safety Culture

The restaurant and foodservice business is all about relationships. If the very end of the line is the relationship between the restaurant operator and his customer, at the beginning is the relationship between the restaurant operator and his distributors and suppliers. In order to ensure a happy and satisfied customer experience, the entire supply chain must be operating smoothly and safely. When it comes to food safety, everyone at every step of the way - from farm or manufacturer to distributor to table - must be focused on the same goal: providing the safest, most wholesome food possible. When this approach to food safety is implemented at every link in the food chain, the entire process becomes easier to manage, increases customer retention and reduces liability risks.

As the recent ConAgra Foods voluntary beef recall has revealed, it is essential to have a food safety system in place to manage day-to-day operations as well as a foodborne illness outbreak. Failure to avoid or mishandle an outbreak can have unfortunate results, such as a loss of prestige in the marketplace, decreased sales, increased insurance premiums and damaging lawsuits.

Even in the face of a catastrophe, restaurant and foodservice industry executives must work closely with their suppliers and distributors to identify problems, develop solutions and determine strategies to avoid repeating mistakes. For example, after Jack in the Box restaurants experienced a devastating E.coli outbreak in 1993, the burger chain worked with its meat suppliers to implement the industry's toughest food safety rules and developed internal systems to assure the problem would not occur again.

At Darden Restaurants, Inc., having a food safety culture is at the very foundation of the company. "I have been at Red Lobster and then Darden Restaurants for more than 22 years. When I joined the company, that was already the culture. Back then it was called quality control, but food safety is a long-term driving force here," says Tom Chestnut, vice president of quality assurance for Darden. "Food safety has been a significant driver in this company. It's always been there. It has been a matter of how do we continue that culture and that starts at the top."

Chestnut explains that the commitment to food safety permeates Darden. "We have taken steps over the years to not just set up a program for inspection, but to take it that extra step. All the food that comes from our suppliers goes through our microbiology labs. Twenty percent of our staff is outside the United States, in China, India and Singapore. We have to work hand-in-hand with the suppliers in other countries especially to develop quality standards that work everywhere," he says.

Darden accomplishes this task with something they call point source inspection. Before they decide to purchase any foodstuffs, it has to pass Darden's standards for food safety quality. For local deliveries, Darden evaluates local suppliers and the final check is at the restaurant level. "We are in each and every one of our distributor warehouses. We check the rotation of the product, check storage practices and look at their HAACP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) plan. We want to know how they ensure that foods are kept at the proper temperatures and make sure that all product meet our exact product specifications. We ask about their training program," Chestnut says. "Our program takes HAACP to the next level."

Distributors and suppliers are an integral part of creating a viable food safety culture today. "We have a very good working relationship with our distributors, and we share the responsibility. They work hand-in-hand with us, making improvements when needed. We are partners committed to delivering the best product to the guest," Chestnut says. In a company that serves 300 million people annually, feeling confident that the food is the safest it can be is crucial. As Chestnut says, quality doesn't cost, it pays. "At the distributor level, if they get it right the first time, we save money. If food is rotated and stored properly, it pays dividends in the end."

Developing a food safety culture, as Chestnut says, starts at the top. The head of the company has to be as committed to food safety as everyone else in the organization. It means making the investment not only in terms of monies, but also in terms of training, standards and communication. "At Sodexho, food safety starts from the top down. There is no value that I can place on having the highest quality, safest food possible. It's an absolute given that we set and keep the highest standards," says Michel Landel, president and CEO, Sodexho, Inc. "I would tell any CEO today that they can't afford not to invest in the best food safety program possible."

But where does an operator go to get help to develop a HACCP program, to train employees, or to set standards for food safety? DSRs are critical today in making sure a food safety culture exists throughout the foodservice chain. In their role as consultants to operations, they can offer advice and partner with operators in developing reliable food safety practices. In this year's ID Operator Survey, nearly three out of four operators in the survey said they would like their distributor-partners to help them with food safety. And in the QSR segment, 82 percent of respondents said they wanted distributor help with food safety. As illustrated in the ID survey, foodservice operators do value the advice and insight a skilled DSR can offer. Taking the role of consultant, DSRs can assist operators in obtaining training and materials, and work with them to set standards for receiving and storing.

One of the industry's strongest education tools is the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation's (NRAEF) ServSafe( food safety training program. ServSafe is user-friendly, flexible and is recognized by more federal, state and local health jurisdictions than any other food safety training program in the United States. These trusted training materials provide up-to-date information for all levels of employees and prepare individuals for the ServSafe Food Protection Manager Certification Examination, which has been nationally recognized by the Conference for Food Protection (CFP). The NRAEF also has a video series designed specifically to help design, implement and monitor a HACCP system.

In addition to the ongoing importance of food safety year-round, the month of September has been designated National Food Safety Education Month and is the perfect time to make a recommitment to food safety. Materials such as posters, weekly lesson plans, activities, games and puzzles are available through the NRAEF's International Food Safety Council(. The items enable DSRs to illustrate to customers the value of developing a reliable food safety culture.

Mary M. Adolf is president and chief operating officer of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.

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