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2. Speak the language of your audience. Food safety messages must be crafted differently for different constituents — especially to encourage collaboration, said Jorge Hernandez, senior vice president, food safety and quality assurance for US Foods, a foodservice distributor based in Rosemont, Ill. For instance, unit-level employees at Chick-fil-A are given a summary of their health department inspections that eliminates agency speak and highlights the actions they need to take immediately, said Hal King, Ph.D., the 1,670-unit Atlanta-based chain’s director of food and product safety.

At US Foods, Hernandez hired a former regulator to talk effectively with inspectors. And senior executives need to hear numbers — including sales at risk should a food safety event occur, as well as the costs associated with potential lawsuits — to capture their attention.

“We have to show an ROI,” King said. “I can show how $10,000 invested will save $1 million.”

3. Emphasize that food safety is a shared responsibility. Quality assurance officials may be a brand’s food safety face, but making sure food safety standards are upheld is a shared responsibility. Third-party assessments can be a powerful way to drive that message home.

Chick-fil-A begins with daily self-assessments conducted in a downloadable self-assessment app. Those results are reviewed instantly at the unit level and weekly at the corporate level to pinpoint potential issues. “We leverage smartphones to leverage behavior on the employees,” King said.

Similarly, third-party assessments are conducted one-on-one with real-time corrective action. “We find a violation and we stay there and coach them through,” King said.

The 560-unit Bob Evans Farms family-dining chain sets its units up for audit success with an internal website that includes, among other information, sample audits so unit-level employees have the tools to pass real audits. Employees also have several references on food safety, sick workers and cleaning on site.

Bob Evans publishes audit results weekly, and gives incentives, such as gifts, money and year-end bonuses, for outstanding performance. “The best part of my job is when I go out to see the managers and reward them,” said Richard McKinney, senior director, food safety and quality assurance for the Columbus, Ohio-based chain.

4. Pay attention to product holding temperatures. Between 1998 and 2008, improper holding of food was the biggest risk factor for foodborne illness outbreaks, said Ecolab’s Petran, citing Centers for Disease Control & Prevention research findings. During that time, the CDC linked 504 restaurant outbreaks to improperly cooled foods, she said.

Operators can help reduce food-safety risks by making sure that the holding equipment they use is designed and maintained to keep foods below 41 degrees Fahrenheit and above 135 degrees, and that employees regularly monitor foods in holding with calibrated thermometers, Petran said.

But while that may sound easy to accomplish, Petran cited data collected at 420 restaurants, including chain and independent venues, that showed that that the ambient temperature in equipment holding cold food measured greater than 41 degrees 16 percent of the time. Further, related observations indicated that cooling pans were not shallow enough to ensure good contact between food and surfaces in direct contact with cold baths; that there was limited ventilation in cold storage areas; that foods were improperly stacked on top of each other in coolers; that there was an insufficient amount of ice in cold baths; and that managers who said they were trained did not properly monitor time or temperatures 41 percent of the time and had thermometer calibration issues 31 percent of the time.