From farm to kitchen, risk of food poisoning lurks

Farm Forum

It’s one of a restaurant’s worst nightmares: a food-poisoning outbreak.

So most have strict controls in place to keep their food safe and avoid the lawsuits, bad publicity and slumping sales that often come after customers get sick.

That is especially true at the big chains, which have national reputations to protect and more money to spend on safety. Still, from the supply chain to the kitchen, there is room for things to go wrong.

“There is always risk associated with food,” said David Acheson, a former Food and Drug Administration associate commissioner who’s now a food-safety consultant. “No amount of money and legislation is going to take food risk to zero.”

Earlier this in August, health officials linked Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants in Iowa and Nebraska to a cyclospora outbreak that has sickened more than 200 people in those states. Salad mix from Taylor Farms de Mexico was served at an undetermined number of the restaurants in those two states, the FDA said.

Authorities still haven’t been able to link to specific places almost 300 additional cases in other states. Cracking the mystery could take weeks, and there’s a chance it will never be solved, some experts say.

In 2009 and 2010, the most recent years available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 1,527 food-borne outbreaks in the United States, resulting in 23 deaths and 29,444 illnesses.

About half of the cases were linked to food prepared in one specific place. Of those, 48 percent were from restaurants and delis, while 21 percent came from food in someone’s home. Other sources included grocery stores, caterers and institutions such as prisons.

The CDC defines an outbreak as at least two similar illnesses resulting from one source of food.

Food-borne illnesses can come from improper handling of food in the kitchen, or problems in the farms and processing plants where restaurants get their raw materials.

Because restaurants are usually removed from where their food is grown or raised, Acheson said, “the supply chain part, obviously, for your average restaurant is much, much more of a challenge.”

It’s more manageable for big companies such as Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants, which owns Red Lobster, Olive Garden and other chains. The world’s largest casual dining company, which had $8.6 billion in sales last year, can afford to send its own inspectors around the globe to inspect suppliers personally.

In a 2012 online report, Darden said it has an international team of 50 scientists and public-health professionals who work on food safety. It also has 20 food and facility inspectors and 18 managers who review how food is handled inside its chains’ more than 2,100 restaurants.

In an email, Darden said it has “increased resources” for food safety, although it did not provide details. It referred questions to Acheson, who has done consulting work with Darden for three years.

When companies like Darden audit their suppliers’ food-production sites, Acheson said, their work includes not just spot checks but also rigorously poring over records of suppliers’ test results and safety procedures. The goal is to “to get more of a video of what’s going on than a snapshot,” he said.

Still, he said, the cyclospora outbreak has Darden thinking about ways to improve its system.

“I’ve already had conversations with them about … ‘What can we do different if it really did flow through us?’ ” Acheson said. “I would predict that … they will reassess one more time and up (their) game again.”

In the email, Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers said the company has “the most robust and stringent food safety practices in the industry and we take our obligation to be vigilant with those practices extremely seriously.”