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5. Practice internal and external crisis-management procedures. At Texas Roadhouse, crisis simulations run with the help of a consultant give employees a chance to test procedures in a real-time manner and identify and correct shortcomings, said Patrick Sterling, director of risk management for Louisville, Ky.-based Texas Roadhouse, a 400-plus-unit casual-dining chain.

Simulations should incorporate all aspects of the management plan being tested, Sterling said. For example, if the simulation is to test your company’s reaction to a major foodborne illness outbreak, don’t start with an understanding that an outbreak is underway and launch right into the reaction of corporate executives, but rather begin the drill by having simulated calls come in from restaurants or health departments to a corporate hotline, if that is the procedure.

“You can’t prepare for every crisis,” Sterling said. “So you have to have smoldering crisis and surprise crisis templates. Because each crisis is unique, tabletop exercises test the system. [Your plan] may look great on paper, but you need to test the system.”

6. Look for the signs of potential problems and act on them. Closely monitor internal communications and public health developments for indications of possible food-safety problems, advised attorney Marler.

“I can't think of a foodborne illness outbreak that I’ve been involved in that — and I always get the benefit of hindsight — that when you look back over what happened before the outbreak, there wasn’t always a sign or two that you could have done something to turn the bus around before it went off the cliff,” the veteran litigator remarked.

Marler obtained many millions of dollars in compensation for victims of the deadly 1992-93 multi-state E. coli O157:H7 outbreak from undercooked burgers sold by Jack in the Box. In that case, he cited an unheeded pre-outbreak notification from the Washington state department of health about the need to cook burgers to an internal temperature of 155 degrees Fahrenheit, versus the 140-degree standard indicated by the federal Food Code at the time. He also pointed to a suggestion faxed from a store-level employee with the idea of grilling burgers longer because some were not being fully cooked and customers were complaining.

Marler, who advocates a full range of disease screening and reporting by public health agencies, as well as additional pathogen testing at the manufacturing level to prevent oubreaks, added that if California had been among the handful of states in 1992 that publicly reported O157:H7 illnesses, the Jack in the Box outbreak might have been significantly blunted because a smaller cluster of illnesses there preceded a much larger outbreak in Washington. Marler noted that social media makes such evidence even easier to secure nowadays.

7. Do the right thing. During a norovirus outbreak, Texas Roadhouse officials set up a hotline staffed with nurses to take calls from sick patrons. They alerted the media that medical advice was available and were able to dull the negative publicity and assure customers that their well being was front of mind.   

“The key is doing the right thing,” Sterling said.

Contact Robin Lee Allen at robinlee.allen@penton.com.
Contact Alan J. Liddle at alan.liddle@penton.com.