Wall Street Journal has an interesting read about mitigating food safety risks. Some of the keys mentioned are right on target..."Companies need strong food safety policies that are enforced, extensive employee training and messaging and regular checking of their supply chains through audits, and product testing to help mitigate their risks.." Then monitoring is discussed at length with specific attention to monitoring of social media. The point they make is that monitoring social media may be helpful, but it is far from full proof. Case in point was the Chipotle outbreak where social mentions months before the outbreak were not much different than that during the outbreak.
There are times monitoring social media can help, like the case earlier this year when LA County Health identified an outbreak at a restaurant. But monitoring of social media has its drawbacks, as we pointed out last year when it was highlighted in the news media as the next best thing in the fight against foodborne illness. Those who monitor consumer complaints will probably tell you, sometimes a complaint of illness here or there is common, and it can be difficult in telling what is real and what is either a misinterpretation of cause by the consumer (they picked the last thing they ate, it was a seasonal illness, etc) or the consumer just wanted to complain.
As part of the company's food safety system, monitoring of complaints made formally or made through social media can all help in identifying an issue earlier, but it is far from clear cut. Much of it will be establishing procedures for identifying key words or patterns in the data. Best efforts however, are putting policies and procedures in place to prevent issues in the first place.
Wall Street Journal Risk Report
Awareness, Training, Oversight Keys to Mitigating Food Safety Risks
February 25, 2016
By Ben DiPietro Biography
The recent food sickness problems at Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.—the chain suffered an E.coli outbreak that led to restaurant closures in nine states and a norovirus outbreak that sickened 140 people in Boston–placed a spotlight on risks faced by companies that sell food.
Companies need strong food safety policies that are enforced, extensive employee training and messaging and regular checking of their supply chains through audits, and product testing to help mitigate their risks, according to food safety experts. Monitoring of social media for early-warning signals of possible foodborne illness issues can be helpful and should be done but won’t always help prevent or contain outbreaks, they said.
The stakes for companies that suffer such outbreaks can be high, as they can suffer lower sales, potential lawsuits, regulatory penalties and reputation damage that can take years to repair. “When an incident does happen it has a big effect on restaurants. A lot of it comes down to trust in the organization and the confidence of being safe,” said William Weichelt, director of the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe food-safety training program.
Companies need to pay attention to the messages being left by customers on their toll-free numbers and email addresses, and need to monitor their social media pages and those of their franchisees to look for the early-warning signals of food-related illnesses, said Hal King, who served as director of food and product safety at Chick-fil-A and now is chief executive of consultancy Public Health Innovations. “If the same thing is happening in two states it’s not a coincidence…it’s a sign this is going to get worse,” and maybe the company should suspend use of suspected products until it knows for certain what is happening, he said.
Companies should have in place food safety management systems to minimize the threat from employees who mishandle food, said Mr. King. That means posting signs reminding employees to wash their hands, to wear gloves when handling food—and even checking to make sure there’s plenty of hand sanitizer in dispensers. Other tips: Using the best available technology to screen employees and send them home if they are ill, and making sure food is cooked properly. By focusing on prevention and using systems and technology, he said companies “might be able to prevent an outbreak.”
What role can social media play in helping uncover potential food-related illnesses early in the process? Research provided to Risk & Compliance Journal by analytics firm AKUDA Labs found Chipotle was mentioned in 148 social media posts in June 2015 that referenced people becoming ill—one month before the first reports of E.coli problems went public. But that number was below the average of 193 such mentions the company received for each of the first six months of 2015.
To put the Chipotle numbers in perspective, AKUDA also looked at the number of similar mentions for McDonald’s Corp., and found the company had a range between 168 and 262 mentions in each of the first six months of 2015. Neither Chipotle nor McDonald’s responded to requests to comment.
Vincent Schiavone, chief executive of AKUDA Labs, called social media “the 21st century canary in the coal mine” and said monitoring customer comments “is a very timely and accurate quality tool that would enable them to respond to issues quicker and mitigate health, regulatory and financial damage.”
While social media may not have helped Chipotle more quickly identify its E.coli outbreak, a review of social media mentions of mold problems in some containers of Chobani yogurt that was conducted in 2013 for Risk & Compliance Journal by Mr. Schiavone’s former company, ListenLogic, found the first mentions of problems appeared about two weeks before the company initiated a voluntary recall. The company was criticized for the way it handled it social media response to customer concerns.
Still, it’s difficult to rely on social media to determine when there might be a health-related issue because people often blame their illness on the last thing they ate—so-called “last meal bias”–and often that is not the culprit, said Ian Williams, chief of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch. If people want to contact the restaurant whose food they believe made them ill, that’s fine, but he said it’s better if they contact their local and state health authorities, which are better equipped to investigate. “They can tie together reports from all over the place, not just the company but local doctors and emergency rooms,” said Mr. Williams. “Their reporting systems have gotten really good the last five to 10 years.”
There were about 800 cases reported to the CDC last year from state and local health authorities, and the CDC took part in about 200 investigations, said Mr. Williams. Around 25 of those cases advanced to the point where the agency had a “pretty good idea” of what food caused the illness and there were 11 cases where it could say it “definitively” knew the cause, he said.
While it’s the state and local health officials who will interview people who suffer food-related illnesses, the CDC—when invited to by a state—will bring in its experts to help with the investigation and to conduct laboratory testing. Using CDC’s PulseNet reporting system, Mr. Williams said the agency knew heath officials in Oregon and Washington had reported illnesses at Chipotle restaurants. When reports of Chipotle illnesses began appearing in other states, the CDC was able to look for common denominators to see what food was making people sick.
Mr. King said it’s up to the industry to stay on top of this issue, and not rely on the CDC, U.S. Food and Drug Administration or other federal and state agencies that oversee food safety. To that end, the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe program helps teach store managers and food handlers about how to work with their suppliers and keep their restaurants clean and sanitized, said Mr. Weichelt.
Created in 1999, the program is based on risk factors listed by the FDA in its food code and builds upon that “so food handlers doing things based upon what the FDA is recommending as good food safety practices,” said Mr. Weichelt. “A lot of things have been going on for a long time but any time something like [Chipotle] comes up it strengthens our resolve to make improvements.”
Write to Ben DiPietro at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @BenDiPietro1.