Hysteria breeds on confusion. And when confusion takes over, it can create a larger void between fact and fear. Such was the case with the H1N1 (swine flu) virus when in 2010 it took center stage within public awareness. People were afraid to eat pork and a quick search on the Internet could harvest all sorts of conflicting opinions and unreliable facts. The truth was that H1N1 could not be contracted through consuming pork products and the infected livestock in North America were only identified in Mexico and California. However, many ribs and barbecue restaurants took a hit during this time as fearful customers stopped eating pork.
This incident, along with many others that have followed including eggs, cantaloupe, raw sprouts and apple juice have left consumers on high alert and food service providers scrambling for business. With the media reporting at break-neck speed and occurrences of outbreaks becoming uncomfortably common, a new challenge is presented to restaurant owners as they manage the information while keeping customers comfortable with their dining choices.
The key to crisis management in the face of foodborne illness and livestock disease involves three necessary steps: stay informed, know where your inventory comes from and communicate with your customers.
Stay Informed of Industry Recalls
Be a step ahead of the general public and assign desktop or text message alerts to your computer or mobile phone. The following organizations offer smart phone applications and email or RSS subscriptions:
Food Safety News
An online news source that reports on food safety issues and concerns. This resource is a great place for restaurant owners and managers to learn about foodborne illnesses, food recalls and food politics.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention
The CDC covers all things health related from prescription medication to foodborne illness. The CDC’s mission is to help protect the nation from threatening health related issues. Restaurant owners and managers can gain information on foodborne outbreaks such as E.coli, Salmonella Enteritidis and Salmonella Typhimurium.
A website that compiles food safety information from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC.) This website offers restaurant owners and managers comprehensive food safety information without searching through various sources.
Google allows users to monitor what is available on the web for a chosen topic. Restaurant owners and managers can set search terms to be delivered directly to their email inbox in a variety of news mediums and in a range of frequency from “as it happens” to “once a week.” This email application allows for operators to stay on top of what customers may be reading.
Know Where Your Inventory Comes From
Source the origin of your meat, poultry, seafood, dairy and produce and ask your suppliers to inform you if they change sources. Here are some ways to stay knowledgeable of your food sources:
- Buy from local sources or farm direct when possible.
- Read source labels on incoming inventory products and bring up any discrepancies with your supplier and train staff members to do the same.
- Purchase meat from suppliers who offer DNA-traceable meat such as the Performance Food Group’s partnership with Braveheart Beef1, who provides IndentiGEN “DNA Traceback”, which tracks beef products from herd to table.
In the instance of an outbreak, having the knowledge of where your product comes from allows for swift action if your menu items could be possible carriers. If your menu items are not affected, this information will allow you to retain customer traffic with honest communication about your food sources.
Communicate with Your Customers
When an outbreak occurs, learn as much as you can. Educate yourself first and share the information with your customers with a set of well-resourced facts and references. This can be done on your restaurant’s website, blog, social media outlet or with menu inserts (or all of the above.) If your restaurant’s specialty is affected, such as with the example above, relay the facts to your customers.
Consider communicating the following:
- Who the sources of the affected food were
- Where your food comes from
- The elimination of certain products from your menu due to contaminated inventory
Keep your restaurant’s vitality under control during times of public uncertainty. Remain informed and stay in touch with your customer base along the way. Review your inventory sources and always know where your food is coming from. With the right amount information, your profits and your customers will remain happy and healthy.
1 Performance Food Group, Braveheart Beef information: http://www.pfgc.com/Pages/default.aspx
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