Sixty percent of all foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States happen at restaurants, according to the CDC. While most restaurants seek to prevent these occurrences, mistakes can happen and a high-profile event that is played out through the media can jeopardize the trust consumers have in these businesses.

While more than 400 food pathogens exist in our environment, they mostly can be controlled by mitigating a series of food safety risk factors. To minimize these outbreaks, UL Everclean, purchased by UL in 2013, conducts 65,000 inspections per year at restaurants, sports stadiums and grocers.

UL starts by performing a risk assessment of a restaurant’s food safety program, looking at their supply chain, training programs, cleaning procedures and other policies. After the risk assessment, auditor’s inspect locations looking for opportunities related to employee health and hygiene, time and temperature abuse, cross-contamination, cleaning and sanitizing challenges, and good retail practices like clean floors, walls, and ceilings.

UL Everclean auditors also conduct routine, unannounced visits of restaurant sites to engage with workers, conduct walk-throughs, deliver trainings, and develop corrective action plans with root-cause analyses.

Clients gain confidence through this audit process because of the tools and expertise provided. In one case, an upstart fast casual chain was looking to expand nationally but did not have the internal food safety processes in place to scale efficiently. In working with UL, a food safety program was clearly defined and implemented to protect the brand from the farm to the fork as they grew to nearly 200 units.

In another situation, the government started a passive investigation of a small restaurant chain suspected of causing an outbreak. The UL team conducted an active investigation using proactive techniques such as surveillance logs and worked with regulators to exonerate their client as the source of the outbreak.

Much of the UL Everclean staff began their careers in public health and this experience helps them work in a collaborative way with health officials. In fact, some jurisdictions will recommend or require that businesses work with UL Everclean because of the credibility it has earned from representing clients.

While the number of foodborne illnesses has dropped dramatically in the U.S. as a result of improvements in food safety risk management, incidents still happen due to the complexity of the global supply chain, families eating out-of-home more often, and high turnover rates of food service employees.

Moreover, many restaurants have yet to adopt state-of-the-art risk management practices for foodborne illnesses. Flynn suggests that any food service business looking to adopt more rigorous practices, should first take these four steps:

  1. Get to know your suppliers, what they are supplying, and what they are doing to protect food;
  2. Improve training for all employees, including at on-boarding, remedial and annual stages;
  3. Establish policies and procedures for everything from cleaning to hand-washing; and
  4. Put a verification program in place, whether through internal food safety inspectors or third-party inspectors.

With these four steps, businesses can set expectations, take corrective actions and continually improve their process, enabling them to keep up with changing pathogens, laws and supply chains.

“Restaurant food safety has advanced significantly over the years,” notes Flynn. “We have moved away from the ‘knock on wood’ safety philosophy of putting measureable, auditable programs in place.”