One of a restaurant owner’s worst nightmares can be an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness traced back to the eating establishment.
“An outbreak could close your business,” said Pamela Roberts, a Central Piedmont Community College culinary arts instructor who teaches food safety classes.
The new Dunkin’ Donuts on West Roosevelt Boulevard in Monroe experienced this in February after six employees and six family members of employees came down with gastrointestinal issues.
Health officials have said the source could have been an issue with the restaurant’s plumbing. A Dunkin’ Donuts official said that the franchise owner has since properly cleaned and sanitized the restaurant.
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Roberts said that owners of restaurants and other food-based business can take several steps to significantly decrease the chance of a gastrointestinal illness originating in their food or restaurant.
• Follow the North Carolina food code: Recent changes in the state food code reflect research into the sources of gastrointestinal diseases and how they spread, Roberts said. One change requires employees to wear gloves when handling any “ready-to-serve” food.
“That barrier between the bare hand and the food that’s ready to eat has really proven to eliminate personal hygiene issues,” Roberts said. “(However), it’s one of the hardest things for culinary staff to get used to doing.”
The code also now has strict rules for reporting sick employees to health officials. Employees will often come to work sick because they can’t afford to lose the wages.
If employees don’t seem themselves, Roberts suggests asking them whether they are feeling OK and whether they have symptoms of gastrointestinal illness. If they are sick, send them home.
Employees and managers also should be aware of how to properly heat and cool foods to avoid the development of toxins on the food.
• Clean well: Employees should wash hands with soap for at least 20 seconds, and refrain from picking scabs and skin or running their fingers through their hair.
She also suggests that restaurants regularly bring in professional cleaners for the bathrooms, especially after a customer has had a gastrointestinal episode.
“Those services are fantastic,” Roberts said. “It’s much better than sending your dishwasher in to wash your bathroom.”
• Take a food safety course: The regulations and standards for good food safety practices can be complicated.
ServSafe, which Roberts teaches, offers education for managers in foodborne illnesses and how to train employees in food sanitation. The course covers details such as what the symbols mean on the bottoms of pots and pans, and what type of flooring services are best.
“It’s not just a course,” Roberts said. “It’s something you put into action.”
ServSafe can be completed in two days or less or online, and students take a 90-question multiple choice test at the end.
• If an outbreak occurs, manage it well: If your restaurant does become the source of an outbreak, be honest about it.
Make sure customers and the public know that the restaurant is serious about food safety and proper cleaning procedures.
“The best thing to do is be honest and let the public know what happened,” Roberts said. “You don’t have control over the story when people are telling it, and it can damage your reputation.”