An interview with Public Health expert, Dr. Hal King

Food Safety is critical for businesses to maintain their brand and customer base. Top of mind for food service facility managers is reducing the risk of outbreaks and recalls, but most are using outdated manual cleaning and reporting protocols to ensure safety. We sat down with Dr. Hal King to discuss the issue, and the cutting edge solution being implemented by leaders in the space.

Let’s start from the need, Dr. King – what is it about the food service environment that is so risky? Can you frame the scale and impact of the problem for us?

Dr. King: Food safety risk management has always been critical to prevent outbreaks that cause sickness or even death from eating unsafe food, but when you consider the impact on the well-being of the people who produce or serve that food, the issue gets much bigger. The Covid-19 pandemic taught us a lot about how dangerous it could be just to show up and make food, like in the incidents in meatpacking facilities which caused over 400 coronavirus-related deaths. (Chadde)

But controlling hazards is an issue to be dealt with all along the supply chain. Those hazards start at the source of production but continue to the foodservice professionals who prepare them, and then they risk passing those hazards onto you, the customer.

Government spending is in the billions of dollars to try and regulate the supply chain side. States spend billions of dollars to try to regulate and ensure restaurants and retail are doing the right thing, buying from safe suppliers and setting up the right controls before passing illness along to consumers. But consumers still spend billions of dollars in healthcare–the stat was over $80 billion a year in healthcare-related to food-borne illness . It’s just such a big issue.

“Companies need persistent solutions and will benefit from a reduction in recontamination on top of lowering the need for labor. We can’t always rely on labor and chemicals to achieve effective risk elimination.”
How do sanitization systems in foodservice facilities break down? Human error? Lack of company policies or insufficient systems? Lack of ability to educate & enforce?

Dr. King: All of the above. But I’ll describe the dynamic in a bit more detail. Companies will invest in buying chemicals but they often don't then take the next step to invest in training employees or training proper use of those chemicals. Those chemicals need to be used several times throughout the day because high-touch surfaces and objects are constantly being contaminated.

So they know there's a lot of added cost in manual chemical cleaning, and they're always trying to cut down on their costs. The more they cut, the more the food safety risk grows. Then it comes back to the experience the customer gets because if they're not doing the things that make it look like a hospitable place, wholesome, clean and safe, the customers don't come back, and the problem compounds.

How much are companies spending to reduce those risks?

Dr. King: It depends on their size, but an average restaurant chain or retail establishment will probably spend upwards of $10 to $20 million just for keeping experts in-house to manage the programs they build and third-party audits. (Regusci) So it's pretty significant. A smaller brand with 300 restaurants might not have the resources to do all that so they try to rely on outside third-party systems to reduce costs. But eventually, as they get bigger they're going to need to invest, and they will continue to grow and spend that money. It's just part of the cost of doing business.

Tell us a bit more about that – what are the repercussions if an incident does occur? And how do prevention programs compare to the cost of an incident?

Dr. King: So the minor things are customer complaints, they got sick and the health department steps in. The restaurant might be in the local news and they're going to lose some sales from anything that relates to the public knowing about accidental exposures. If it’s a bigger issue, something like norovirus and hepatitis A, those are CDC reportable diseases, meaning they have to warn the public about which restaurant is a danger, and they're going to lose a ton of sales with a lot of brand reputation damage. If a doctor doesn’t properly diagnose the issue or doesn’t report it, four or five critical days can pass when others are getting sick. John Hopkins did a study that showed a single restaurant with two cases of illness cost an independent restaurant $3000 to $5,000 on average that day for the incident. (Bartsch et al.) Larger facilities may lose closer to $10,000 a day. Managers can lose their jobs or can even be held legally liable, especially if they're franchises, saying that they didn't enforce the safety policies. If there's a legal claim, it can be over a million dollars for two cases of illness. Without liability insurance, they go out of business. So depending on the severity of the issue, the cost of an incident to a restaurant or facility could be several times the cost of a good food safety program.

What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had on food safety protocols? On employee health? On customer perception?

Dr. King: That’s a big one! Early on we all heard in the news that Coronavirus is going to be spread from surfaces to your eyes and mouth and nose and it's also spread by the air, so then immediately everybody started buying hand sanitizer and increasing their hand washing to try and break the chain of transmission from the things they touched. We’d hear stories about people leaving packages in the garage for weeks or months to let them air out. It was crazy. As more research emerged, the evidence showed us transmission happened in the air, so everyone turned to focus on masks. Interestingly in 2019, we saw the average number of 500 Norovirus outbreaks drop to 18. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021) And it's never done that, ever. Better hand hygiene and surface disinfection helped stave off community acquisition and spread. Now the curve is starting to trend back up with new outbreaks, and bars and restaurants are being told they don't need to worry about high touch surfaces anymore. Well that's false from an overall food safety perspective. What happens if Covid-19 starts mutating again tomorrow? Will we be prepared?

What do employees think about their health & wellbeing going into the facility? What can employers do to create a better environment or experience for them?

Dr. King: Because of the SARS COV2 pandemic, people just do not feel safe around other people. If there are ways to help employees feel safer without them having to wear a mask, that will be important to bringing them back to work and encouraging a return to normalcy. Employers have constant challenges trying to find people to work, train them, and retain them. They have to offer a better salary now and give them better benefits to offset fear. Human-safe solutions that reduce risk and actually improve the environment employees work  in are just going to have to be built  into the cost of the business.

How is Far UV-C light uniquely fit for the foodservice environment?

Dr. King: I think Far UV-C can significantly augment chemical cleaning and sanitation because an  issue in the industry right now is high labor cost and keeping that labor around. In order to keep hygienic and compliant, managers have to send a human body around to wipe down everything every hour or two. It’s time consuming, expensive, and hard to enforce, so maybe they just don't do it - but of course the risk is still there. Products like Population’s that use Far UV-C light are persistently killing the germs on high-touch surfaces and objects, so manual labor becomes a complement rather than the only method to rely on. Businesses get the benefit of reduction of risk on top of lower need for labor to do all the cleaning and sanitation.

“Far UV-C products like Population’s are going to cover gaps and prevent common food safety issues. There’s also something extremely valuable about customers seeing these products in the area. If you're in business making or serving food, you’ll want to talk with Population.”

Why is it so critical that companies start to think about persistent solutions versus intermittent manual sanitization?

Dr. King: Remember that Norovirus is transmitted from hands to surface, to food stations from a restroom. Again, companies need persistent solutions and will benefit from a reduction in recontamination on top of lowering the need for labor. We can’t always rely on labor and chemicals to achieve effective risk elimination. Another way to think about that risk is to consider what would happen tomorrow if we suddenly found out COVID mutated, and now it's all transmitted by high touch surfaces like food-borne illnesses. What would we do?

Far UV-C products like Population’s are going to cover any gaps and prevent the issues we talked about above. There’s something extremely valuable about customers seeing these products in the area.

If you're in business making or serving food, you’ll want to talk with Population. And of course please also contact Active Food Safety for help with your food safety management needs.

Note: Adapted from transcription April 2022