Mitigating the Risk of Food-Borne Illnesses at Hotels

Think of a hotel located near a stretch of bucolic farmland. Picture the large fields of crops, cows and sheep grazing behind picturesque fences. While this may seem like a calm and relaxing scenario, one that attracts guests eager to get a taste of the country life, they could be getting a mouthful of something much less appetizing. Flies are abundant in areas with livestock, and, unfortunately, can transmit food-borne diseases.

Ron Harrison, Ph.D., a technical services director at pest control specialist Orkin, is currently working with a number of hotels suffering from pest problems, and, as a result, compromised food safety. “Hotels have to do everything they can to ensure that pests don’t enter the property, because they can cause food-related illnesses if they get access to the property’s food supply,” Harrison says.

Pests are just one of many factors that can affect food safety and spread food-borne illnesses, which are a major issue in the United States. Francine Shaw, president of Food Safety Training Solutions, a company that offers food-related consulting and training services, says that food poisoning affects one in six Americans every year. And, in that same timeframe, it also causes the hospitalization of 120,000 people and leads to 3,000 deaths. “It seems like every time we turn on the television, pick up a newspaper, or read the news online, there’s another outbreak. But the amazing thing is that the huge, multi-state outbreaks spotlighted in the news are only responsible for 11 percent of all food-borne illnesses,” she explains.


Though it’s a bigger issue than most people realize, food poisoning is getting more coverage than it ever has before. Social media in particular allows any news of food-borne illness to spread like wildfire, and consumers are more aware of food safety issues than they have been in the past, which leads to demands for transparency from food providers. “There are also food safety advocacy groups, such as STOP Foodborne Illness, promoting food safety,” Shaw adds.

With the spotlight on food-borne illnesses, hoteliers should do everything they can to mitigate the risks of an incident. Shaw believes that the first step toward food safety is creating a culture around it. “Culture starts at the top, with executive management. Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk,” she says. This includes ensuring that managers and food-handling employees complete food management courses, as well as take refreshers every few years to keep food safety at the front of their minds. Shaw notes, “Sometimes a busy day or being short-staffed distracts employees from following basic rules, like regular hand washing. Refresher courses reiterate the importance of critical rules and regulations.”

Beyond employee training, hoteliers and food service managers should conduct regular, daily spot checks for cleanliness and appropriate temperatures. There is software available that helps hoteliers manage and track the food that comes through their kitchens, ensuring everything follows HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) best practices. One such program is iCertainty’s CHEFS—used by industry giants like Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and Margaritaville Resorts—which uses mobile technology and Bluetooth food thermometers to track food safety data. Tom Moore, industry lead, retail and hospitality for Zebra Technologies, the company whose technology—MC40 mobile computers—supports the CHEFS software used in Disney properties and parks, says that this type of software has far-reaching benefits for all food service providers, not just big resorts. “A restaurant, a grocery store that offers prepared foods, and a hotel could all benefit from a technology-based solution like CHEFS,” he says. “It saves a lot of time because it automates tasks that previously had to be done by hand, like taking the temperature of the dressings in a salad bar. And if a reading is out of scope, it immediately notifies a manager who can quickly remedy the problem.”

It is also important that hoteliers keep track of where their food is sourced to be able to quickly identify potential safety issues. Certain foods present more of a risk than others, such as undercooked meat and poultry, melons, and sprouts. “If an unsafe product enters your establishment, there is nothing you can do to make it safe,” Shaw says. “Whether purchasing from a mass supplier or a local venue, it’s imperative to make certain the vendors are following the necessary protocols to ensure the safety of their guests.” Shaw suggests visiting the supplier facility, asking to see inspection reports, getting references from current clients, and making sure they are in compliance with all government regulatory agencies.

Food safety should always be at the forefront of hoteliers’ minds. “Whether you’re serving a continental breakfast or cooking in a high-end hotel restaurant, your level of attention to food safety should be the same,” Harrison says. “And regardless of the type of food service you offer, you should periodically audit your processes and procedures to find and fill any gaps. That way you can be confident that you’re delivering a safe food experience for your guests.”

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Kate Hughes, Editor, LODGING Magazine