Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category

Customers are (Still) Willing to Pay More for Safer Food

Today’s top story on Marler Clark’s Food Safety News site discusses a study (re-)confirming that people are willing to pay more for safer food.  (The March 2011 Deloitte Consumer Food Safety Survey reached a similar conclusion.)  However, as with most risk management plans, this recent study confirms consumers consider a cost/benefit analysis and will not pay an unlimited amount for minor safety improvements.

The bottom line for manufacturers, grocers, and restauranteurs: your customers will pay more to avoid food-borne illness (although they will not pay unlimited sums for minor food safety improvements), and a comprehensive food safety risk management plan may also reduce the costs and risks of litigation and lost brand value.

You may be Sued Even if You Sell Safe Food

Your food processing company or restaurant may be sued even if it sold perfectly safe food, and even if your customers incurred no physical injury.  Recently, a New Jersey state appellate court ruled that Hindu restaurant patrons could sue a restaurant for serving them a dish containing meat, after they expressly told the staff they were strict vegetarians.

The customers claim they incurred spiritual and emotional injuries.  They seek damages to recover the cost of traveling to India to cleanse their souls.

The purpose of this posting is not to question anyone’s religious beliefs or comment on any factual support for the plaintiffs’ allegations or the restaurant’s possible defenses.

Rather, this litigation should serve as a reminder that “labels matter.”  As discussed in Kwikset v. Sup. Ct. (Benson) 51 Cal.4th 310, 330 (2011), companies that incorrectly represent that their product is, for example, Kosher, when it is not, may not cause any physical harm to a customer who follows Kosher dietary laws.  However, a customer that pays for food that a company misrepresents is Kosher likely has standing to sue the company for an economic injury based on that misrepresentation (at least in California).  It appears that the New Jersey courts are following similar reasoning in this recent case.

The takeaway message: your customers take your representations seriously, and misrepresentations can be very costly.  Just ask McDonald’s.  In 2009, it paid $10 million to resolve claims arising out of allegedly mislabeling its french fries as vegetarian, even though no plaintiff incurred any physical injury (although the company represented that “vegetarians can enjoy” its french fries, they contained beef flavoring; nonetheless, McDonald’s denied plaintiffs’ allegations).

Childhood Food Allergy Prevalence Higher than Previously Estimated

The Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published a new study today which concluded that “the prevalence and severity of childhood food allergy is greater than previously reported.”  Some six million children in the U.S. have food allergies, and almost 40 percent of food allergy reactions are “severe.”

Although there is some research indicating that a novel food processing method may reduce peanut allergenicity, until there is a highly-effective treatment or cure for food allergies, food-allergic consumers must avoid foods that cause their reactions.

When accommodating a food-allergic consumer, restaurants may want to consider whether their staff are aware of not just the potentially life-threatening allergic reactions, but also some persistent myths about food allergies.  Troublingly, some people believe that eating just a little bit of an allergic food may be okay, or that cooking makes a food less allergenic.

Restaurants and retail foodservice providers that can successfully implement risk management plans can increase their sales and meet their customers’ requests for safer food.

Real-Time Temperature Traceability Helps Maintain the Cold Chain

 My new article, RFID Improves Food Safety Risk Management, discusses how RFID can help maintain the cold chain.

Restaurants: Have You Considered Food Allergy Awareness Week as a Business Opportunity?

Food Allergy Awareness Week is May 8-14, 2011. 

Have you considered whether this is an opportunity for your restaurant to reach out to the community of food-allergic consumers?  If not, why not?  Food-allergic consumers are loyal, repeat customers.  Restaurants that accommodate them can grow their business.

Perhaps your staff are not sufficiently trained to handle requests from allergic customers?  The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network and the National Restaurant Association published Welcoming Guests with Food Allergies, a free guide to help restaurants train staff to serve food safely to their food-allergic patrons.

When You Tell Your Customer Your Product is Gluten-Free, What do You Mean, and Can You Prove It?

Recently, Paul Seelig, the owner of Great Specialty Products, was arrested for allegedly representing that its bread was “gluten free,” even though it allegedly tested positive for gluten.  (Seelig denied the allegations, and he is currently on trial in North Carolina.)  According to his defense counsel, the company was misled by its suppliers.

The purpose of this post is not to discuss the substantive merits of this dispute or pick sides; defendants are innocent until proven guilty.  I will, however, address some risk management issues for companies that are trying to do the right thing, such as identifying simple steps one can take to minimize the risk of litigation, and when necessary, be better prepared to defend itself in a court of law (and the court of public opinion).

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a type of protein found in some grains.  When people with celiac disease eat gluten, they may experience gastric distress and other symptoms.  (The FDA estimates that up to 1% of the population may have celiac disease.)  Some research has shown that gluten consumption may also contribute to other health problems.  Accordingly, many consumers are now seeking “gluten-free” products.

What does “Gluten Free” Mean?

At this time, there is no standard for this term in the U.S.  However, the FDA has proposed setting a threshold of 20 ppm for a product to claim that it is “gluten free.”  The FDA also publishes a list of questions and answers about its proposed gluten-free labeling rule.  That site also identifies several foods that naturally contain no gluten.

How Can My Company Tell Consumers About its Gluten-Free Products?

Good communication is important in any relationship, personal or business.  Talk to your customers about their needs and interests.  Are foods with low gluten levels acceptable, or does their diet have stricter requirements?

If you are buying purportedly gluten-free products from your suppliers, how are they testing and documenting that?  Who performs their testing?  How long do they (and you) keep records? 

Be realistic about what you can do for your customers.  Above all, it goes without saying that one should not exaggerate a product’s gluten-free status or flat-out lie to customers, as at least one chef allegedly did.

California Restaurants and Retail Foodservice Companies: Do You Post Proposition 65 Warnings?

Your restaurant serves wholesome food and artisinal cocktails; the menu touts all of the fresh ingredients, including the farms where you obtain your fresh produce and meats.  Did you also disclose a Proposition 65 warning about potential food safety hazards?

California’s Proposition 65 requires businesses to notify consumers that hazardous chemicals may be present in products purchased on the premises.  A consumer may sue your restaurant and allege that it does not comply with this requirement.  Even if such a lawsuit is frivolous, litigation can be quite expensive.

Fortunately, a business can take cost-effective steps to protect itself from the risks of this litigation by posting prescribed warnings, such as:

“WARNING:  Chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, or birth defects or other reproductive harm may be present in foods or beverages sold or served here.”

I know, a warning label may not be the most enticing way to upsell your customers.  However, think about this simple fact: the U.S. government has required warning labels on alcoholic beverages since 1989, but there is little (if any) evidence that they have affected sales.  (There is also a specific Proposition 65 warning for alcoholic beverages.)

However, there are emerging Proposition 65 litigation risks, such as neurotoxic acrylamide in fried foods and carcinogenic heterocyclic amines (HCAs) in grilled foodsThe San Francisco Department of Public Health publishes this handy (and free) FAQ about Proposition 65 for restaurants and other food establishments.

For more information, feel free to read the article I co-authored regarding Proposition 65 Risk Management.

HACCP Resources for Small Food Processing Companies (and Restaurants)

February 3, 2011 3 comments

Developing, implementing, and verifying effective written Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans can seem like a daunting task for startup and small-scale food processing companies.  (The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act requires food processing companies to do so.)  Climb this hill one step at a time, and you may realize that it is not so hard after all.  The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA offers guidance and free information to help small and very small companies increase food safety by validating, verifying, and documenting their HACCP risk management plans.  Several universities and other organizations publish guidelines for how processing companies can develop HACCP SOPs.  Sample HACCP SOPs are also available for restaurants and foodservice companies.

Why are Some Stores Still Selling Contaminated Food a Week After It’s been Recalled?

February 1, 2011 1 comment

Why are some stores still selling a contaminated foodweek after it’s been recalled?  Perhaps they have not signed up for FDA email notifications re: product recalls.  This fast and free service will help your food processing company, restaurant, or retail store stay up-to-date about foods they use, serve, or sell and lower the risk of, e.g., selling salsa containing cilantro that may be contaminated with salmonella.

Food Recall: Is Your Restaurant Prepared?

Here is a link to my December 2010 article in the National Registry of Food Safety Professionals E-Zine regarding the importance of restaurants using food recall risk management practices.