Last January, one of the most popular fast-casual chains in America fell almost fifteen percent in a single financial quarter. Even now, a year and a half later, sales are still lagging and recovering at slow rates at Chipotle, despite efforts to address safety concerns.
There were fifty-five reported illnesses E. Coli outbreaks at Chipotle restaurants across eleven states, though it seems the damage to the company’s image amplified those cases. And of course this was not the only chain that had health and safety concerns in the past year:
For personal and private chefs, it may be reassuring that each chef arguably has more oversight concerning the ordering and preparation of food. And while these chefs still do need to be concerned about proper food handling and similar procedures, there are a number of things beyond their control that could potentially leave clients at risk for food poisoning or food-borne illnesses. And it has nothing to do with how well these chefs follow safety guidelines.
The Shadow in the Kitchen: Recalls
Something that is rarely covered in food safety courses is how to deal with packaged and pre-made foods that chefs often rely on, either out of necessity or for a specific recipe.
Though many personal and private chefs pride themselves on cooking things from scratch and using fresh ingredients, making everything from scratch is not always possible. Sauces, pastas, and other packaged goods serve as sometimes needed supplements to a chef’s supplies. And even fresh produce and fresh dairy or meat products can be susceptible to being recalled.
If it seems like there are food recalls nearly every week in even local news, that’s because they happen a surprising amount, even in a country where a federal agency requires inspections and standards of quality for food products available for purchase. Last year, there were seven hundred and sixty-four reported cases of official product recalls, which marks a twenty-two percent increase from 2015.
And while Cindy Rice, President of Eastern Food Safety, attributes some of the increase in reports to “more stringent testing and regulations”, these measures were adopted, in part, because “the number of outbreaks that have been reported to the CDC”.
One thing is for certain: even as the FDA investigates and reports on recalls, chefs have a responsibility to be vigilant in understanding how to access information, take tips for prevention, and handle a product recall professionally.
Why Food Recalls Happen
While both E. Coli and Listeria tend to be the most public of reasons behind national outbreaks and product recalls, there are a number of reasons behind recalls on everything from frozen foods to fresh produce.
According to data published by Socrata, the leading reason for food recalls, by far, is Salmonella, with allergen cross-contamination, followed by “other” reasons rounding out the top three. Also mentioned are Listeria, incorrect labeling of ingredients, manufacturing concerns, among others.
In wake of the Listeria outbreak of 2015, Women’s Health Magazine pointed to just how many products something like this could affect. The sheer range, from melons to ice cream, sent shock waves of fear, among not only consumers, but also chefs. And while the reasons behind stretches of outbreaks are often not clear, they usually point to a number of common threads.
For most instances, manufacturers and suppliers are not following safety procedures concerning the proper storage or transfer of such products, though it can also happen on local levels, on the shelves in grocery stores.
If this sounds difficult to pin down or completely resolve, that’s because it is. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps personal and private chefs can take when it comes to purchasing food.
Is Prevention Possible?
While chefs cannot know ahead of time whether or not a product will be later recalled, there are a few measures they can take to reduce the risk of exposing their clients to possible illnesses or negative reactions.
For one, a few food products pose unusually high risks. Monica Beyer, a professional writer and contributor to She Knows,a lifestyle magazine, suggests inspecting packaging carefully if you’re not buying fresh. Bloated bags with excess air, or excess water, as well as food with bruises or cuts are especially risky. And of course, she adds, check expiration dates. She also suggests trying to buy locally as much as possible.
Certain foods, like raw milks and cheeses, carry higher risks because they have not undergone the process of pasteurization. So too can products with raw or under-cooked meat.
Finally, the more chefs can prepare themselves, the less likely they will run into a recall affecting them. But even fresh foods should be properly prepared, washed, and stored. M
In Case of Recall
If a chef does find he or she has purchased a product subject to a recall, the key is not to panic, but to respond quickly and professionally:
Alert your clients: As soon as possible, make your clients aware of the recall and provide the official briefing so he or she understands what the recall involves, and what symptoms he or she should be monitoring. Not only is hiding the recall unethical and unprofessional, but it will do nothing to change the situation. Transparency is absolutely vital; never assume a client is aware of the recall, or that he or she has consumed something involved in the recall.
Don’t Panic: Even for product recalls, it is common for individuals not to suffer ill effects. Still, transparency and understanding risks is important.
Understand the Scope and Eliminate Supply: Make sure you understand all products affected and immediately discard any from your supply. If a brand has a line of products recalled that are similar but not the exact product, exercise caution. Sometimes further recalls will occur
Get Alerts: Food Safety.gov offers ways to sign up for alerts. Recalls.gov also allows you to subscribe to official email lists. Stay up to date on all recalls, and even for future recalls as a proactive measure.