People in the food industry spend so much time and energy creating an enjoyable customer experience. You order the finest ingredients and assemble dishes with the utmost attention–you generally care deeply about creating satisfied customers who come back to your establishment again and again.
And while there's a lot you can do to ensure your kitchen’s food safety practices are ironclad, sometimes, things slip through the cracks. Accidents happen, and every now and then, they can impact customer safety.
But what about when those slip-ups aren't an accident–but are done on purpose?
Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world, and these things do happen. The good news? There are steps you can take to prevent the intentional contamination of food.
Let's take a closer look.
What is Intentional Contamination of Food?
Food tampering is a serious crime, and it comes in different forms. There are three kinds of contamination that you are warned about when it comes to food safety, but what do they look like when that contamination is done intentionally?
Physical contamination can occur when materials like needles, glass, or metal objects are introduced into food products.
Chemical contamination involves the addition of a foreign substance that can harm the consumer.
Biological contamination is common among meat products and results in illness-causing bacteria introduced to the food.
These different methods of intentional contamination present varied levels of danger to the consumer, with chemical contamination being the most severe.
When and Why Does Intentional Contamination Happen?
Food tampering can occur at any point. It can happen during processing, manufacturing, storage, or service. Essentially, it can happen up until the exact moment it reaches the final customer.
Because it can occur in any area of the supply chain, it's tough to detect–sometimes, until it's too late.
Sometimes, the intent to contaminate food is not necessarily to cause harm. It can be an immature prank or a petty act of revenge.
For example, a staff member upset with a customer may deliberately spit in their salad (the movie Waiting, anyone?). A server may sneak a few fries from a customer's plate on their way to deliver the order. These situations may seem minor in the grand scheme of things, but they can significantly impact the customer's perception of the establishment.
Deliberate food contamination can also be motivated by a desire to steal or harm a business, industry, process, or product. Disgruntled staff or competitors may engage in this behavior. In some cases, the contamination can lead to negative publicity and legal action, harming the entire industry.
In some rare instances, there is a specific desire to cause injury or even death. A notorious example is the Excedrin tampering case in 1986, where a woman used tampered medication to cover up the murder of her husband. This type of intentional contamination can have catastrophic consequences, including lifelong injuries, deaths, and even legal action.
The consequences of deliberate food contamination can be detrimental, stretching beyond the individual impacted. If a restaurant's reputation is damaged due to a contamination incident, it can affect thousands of customers, lead to loss of revenue, and bring about legal implications.
In some cases, the entire industry may suffer a backlash, influencing the public's overall perception of food safety and causing long-term damage.
What Does the Acronym ALERT Stand For?
ALERT is an important foodservice acronym. It stands for Assure, Look, Employees, Reports, and Threat. Threat.
The FDA ALERT system is meant to keep our foods safe by reminding us to keep certain elements and components of food service in mind.
The FDA's ALERT tool can, quite honestly, be applied to just about any area of foodservice. However, it's most applicable in the context of preventing intentional contamination.
Here are the ALERT steps:
A - Assure
The assurance of food safety is a crucial component of any food defense awareness program. Ensuring the safety of the food served means checking cooking temperatures and expiration dates while ensuring everything is clean throughout the facility.
Food handlers must ensure that all relevant food safety protocols and procedures are in place and continually updated–that way, they can assure their customers.
L - Look
It is the responsibility of food handlers to look out for any unusual or suspicious acts that may occur in the food preparation and serving area.
This could include unauthorized access to the food storage rooms, people tampering with food packages, or staff members exhibiting unusual or suspicious behavior. Any such activities must be reported immediately to the relevant authorities to ensure the safety of the food served.
E - Employees
Every team member in the food service industry should be trained in food safety procedures, including proper handwashing, safe food handling practices, and identifying potential food defense threats.
Every team member involved in food preparation and service must be aware of the various procedures and actual practices that minimize risks.
R - Reports
Food handlers should always report any suspicious activity or incidents immediately to their supervisor or the relevant authorities.
Reporting can help to prevent minor incidents from becoming more severe as well.
T - Threat
The "T" in ALERT food defense awareness programs highlights the importance of being vigilant and aware of potential threats to food safety. These threats can be physical, chemical, or microbiological hazards. Food handlers should be aware of potential threats and take steps to prevent this.
What Does Contaminated Food Look Like?
One of the best ways to prevent serving contaminated food is to inspect it before use. A careful examination of food can reveal signs of contamination before it is too late. Here are some things to look for when inspecting food:
- Foreign objects: Check for foreign objects that do not belong in the food, such as hair, metal fragments, and plastic.
- Odor: Food with a foul odor is a clear warning sign that something is not right. Do not use such food, and return it to the vendor.
- Texture: If the food has an unusual texture, it may be contaminated. For instance, if meat feels slimy to the touch, it is likely that it has been contaminated by bacteria.
Keep an eye out for any products that are generally dirty or damaged. These could be a breeding ground for bacteria, mold, and other harmful pathogens. Always inspect food products for signs of dirt, dust, and other debris.
Some other tell-tale signs include:
- Soft packaging with cuts, tears, or punctures: Such packaging can lead to contamination by airborne bacteria.
- Cans and jars with signs of leakage, spillage, or corrosion: Leaking cans and jars can cause contamination by bacteria and other pathogens.
- Punctured plastic bottles: Punctured bottles can lead to contamination by airborne bacteria and other pathogens.
- Products with damaged or missing safety seals: These are more likely to be contaminated by bacteria and other harmful pathogens.
How Can We Prevent Deliberate Contamination of Food?
The deliberate contamination of food can lead to severe illnesses, death, and economic loss. As a foodservice professional, it's essential to take preventive measures to keep your food safe from contamination.
Here's our best advice.
1. You Guessed It, Implementing ALERT
The ALERT system is designed to help foodservice professionals prevent deliberate contamination by assessing and enhancing their vulnerability to it.
Assure that your food is safe, look for possible threats, educate your staff, establish a reporting system, and prepare a plan to defend against known threats. That is one of the most effective regimens you can implement as a foodservice professional, full stop. Refer to the acronym breakdown above as a regular refresher.
2. Source With Intentional Contamination in Mind
When selecting ingredients, do so with the potential risk of contamination in mind. It's best to work with well-known and reputable suppliers with strict safety measures. You should also verify the authenticity and quality of your ingredients.
3. Inspect All Deliveries Carefully
During delivery, inspect all items carefully, and look for any signs of damage or tampering. If anything seems suspicious, notify your supplier immediately.
Check the packaging for tears, holes, or punctures, which could indicate possible contamination. Look at the labels to ensure they are correct and have no signs of alteration.
4. Set Aside Any Damaged or Unsealed Items
If you find any damaged or unsealed items during an inspection, do not use them. Instead, set them aside, and notify your supplier immediately.
Do not place them back into inventory or use them to prepare food. By removing these items from use, you can prevent contamination from spreading to other food items.
5. Choose Suppliers With Tamper-Evident Delivery Packaging
Make sure the distributors you use have tamper-evident delivery packaging, which makes it impossible for anyone to open the packaging without leaving a trace. This also ensures that your products haven't been tampered with during transportation.
Also, it's important to establish a relationship with your suppliers–don't always spring for the ones with the lowest prices. This will help you ensure they have the same safety standards as your establishment.
6. Keep Accurate Inventories and Records
Keep track of the products that come in and out of your establishment. This way, you'll know exactly what should be in your fridge or pantry at any given time and can easily spot any inconsistencies. In case of contamination, you'll be able to trace the source immediately and tackle the issue immediately.
Be sure to label, too. You might think that this is not really necessary, since your staff knows what each item is.
However, labeling plays a vital role in preventing contamination. Labeling each item with their respective name and expiration date ensures that your staff uses the right products at the right time.
7. Don't Add Old Food to New When Restocking
Keep track of which items are new and which ones are old.
To prevent cross-contamination, don't mix your old and new products. Instead, place the older ones towards the front of the fridge or pantry to be used first.
Also, make sure your staff is aware of this protocol and educate them about the seriousness of cross-contamination.
8. Clean Daily
A regular cleaning routine that follows the letter of the law is the simplest, yet the most important, step you can take in preventing contamination. All surfaces should be cleaned with a food-safe sanitizing agent.
Your cleaning schedule should include high-risk areas such as the preparation area, storage areas, and utensils. Nobody wants to enjoy a meal in an unclean establishment, and clean practices inspire trust and loyalty–all while ensuring peace of mind regarding intentional contamination.
9. Place Self-Service Areas in Clear View of Staff
Place self-service areas in a clear view of staff to discourage customers from tampering with food. Staff should regularly monitor and inspect self-service areas for signs of tampering or contamination.
10. Keep Staff Personal Items Out of Food Handling Area
Your staff should not bring personal items such as jewelry, keys, phones, or other objects into food preparation areas. These items can easily become a source of contamination, transferring bacteria to food during preparation.
11. Have a Separate Place for Breaks
Team members should take their breaks in a separate area from the food preparation areas, as this can prevent cross-contamination between staff and food.
The break areas should be equipped with washbasins and hand sanitizers to ensure your team members maintain good hygiene.
12. Do a Complete Background Check on All New Hires
To prevent deliberate food contamination, you've got to hire the right people. Conduct thorough background checks on all new hires, including criminal record checks and reference checks, to ensure no history of criminal activity or other concerning behaviors.
This can be particularly important for hires with access to food storage areas or who will be involved in food preparation.
13. Implement a System for Handling Products
Ensure all products are handled correctly and that there are no opportunities for tampering. Implement effective product handling processes, from receiving products to storing and preparing them.
Encourage all staff members to practice good hygiene and follow food safety protocols, such as wearing gloves and hair nets and cleaning and sanitizing work surfaces regularly.
14. Train All Staff Well, and Re-Train Often
Train all staff members thoroughly on food safety, hygiene, and security procedures, and provide ongoing training and refreshers.
Consider incentivizing and rewarding staff for good food safety practices to motivate them to remain vigilant.
Haven't found a training program you like? Consider Trust20's products, like the Food Handler Certificate Training or the Food Protection Manager Certification. You'll learn everything you need to know about safety in the kitchen, including how to prevent both accidental and intentional contamination.
Remember, preventing cross-contamination requires a proactive approach and a team effort. All team members must know the risks and understand their roles in preventing contamination.
Implement the ALERT system and sign your team up for Trust20's food safety training today.
By working together, we can keep our food safe and protect the health of our communities.
- Minnesota Department of Health: Prevent Cross-Contamination
- Michigan State University: Protect your food product from intentional harm with ALERT system
- NY State Department of Health: How to Prevent Food Tampering-A Guide for Food Service Establishment Operators