Inside the World of Food Safety Consulting: Observations, Revelations & Personal Anecdotes

My journey as a food safety consultant, especially during my tenure with a certain consulting firm in Austin, Texas, has been both illuminating and disheartening. While numerous restaurants operate with the utmost integrity, putting the health and safety of their patrons first, there were times when the reality behind the kitchen doors deeply disturbed me. I am ashamed to admit that I was once part of a deceitful consulting team, and what I witnessed during that period was far from ideal


Passion for Safety:

Ensuring that every meal served is free from potential harm is my guiding principle. Food safety transcends mere checklist compliance; it’s a commitment to the well-being of every diner.


The Good:

  1. Dedicated Establishments: Many of the establishments I’ve encountered hold food safety in the highest regard, consistently upholding impeccable standards.
  2. Innovative Solutions: The use of cutting-edge technology, from UV sanitizers to advanced food storage methods, showcases the industry’s potential.


The Concerns:

  1. Shortcuts and Financial Motivations:
    • Inspection Preparedness: Some establishments operate in a cyclical pattern – maintaining standards only around inspection periods, influenced largely by a desire to avoid fines rather than a genuine commitment to safety.
    • Document Falsification: In a bid to sidestep penalties and maintain a façade of compliance, there are instances where logs are misleadingly completed, not reflecting the actual conditions. Money takes precedence over actual safety concerns.
    • Consultant Dilemma:
      • Some consultants, swayed by financial incentives, steer away from advocating for long-term safety improvements. Instead, their focus shifts to helping restaurants merely ‘pass’ inspections.
      • By offering these short-term solutions, they establish a Dependency Cycle. This cycle ensures the restaurant becomes perennially reliant on the consultant, cementing a steady revenue stream often at high costs to the establishments. Again, monetary gains outweigh genuine safety improvements.
    • Misplaced Priorities: In the race to appeal to customers and save costs, aesthetics and other superficial factors are sometimes prioritized over foundational safety practices. This misplaced focus endangers patrons, with the establishments often being more concerned about their bottom line.


The Double-Edged Sword of Compliance:

While I worked with this consulting firm, a calculated strategy came to light. When restaurants declined our services, the firm would, in a tactical move, lodge a complaint with the health department. More often than not, this maneuver would result in the establishment being swiftly placed under scrutiny, leading to an official compliance notice by the health department.

With the looming threat of sanctions, penalties, or even potential closure, many restaurant owners felt trapped. This engineered vulnerability rendered them susceptible to the designs of predatory consultants. These professionals, sensing the desperation, would not hesitate to charge exorbitant fees, knowing that the establishments had little choice but to comply. The immediate relief offered by these consultants often concealed a more insidious agenda: cultivating an environment of continuous dependency.

In this cycle, restaurants not only had to grapple with the financial strain but also the ever-present fear of non-compliance. They became ensnared in a system where short-term fixes took precedence over long-term solutions, perpetuating a cycle of vulnerability and dependence.


An Alarming Trend: Time as a Public Health Control Logs:

Employees were meticulously trained on how to fill out the ‘Time as a Public Health Control’ logs, a tool meant to ensure the safety of foods that are out of the recommended temperature range for short periods. Yet, the ground reality was alarmingly different. Foods like biryani, sauces rich in yogurt and heavy cream, and cooked hard-boiled eggs were left out for prolonged durations, often exceeding the safe time frame. In some instances, leftover rice that had been sitting out – sometimes even overnight – was casually reheated in a microwave and then served to unsuspecting patrons.

Adding to the problem, the owner of the food safety consulting firm advised us against discarding such compromised products. Their rationale? Disposing of food meant financial losses for the restaurant. They believed that by making establishments throw away products, we risked losing clients who might resent the additional expenses and, consequently, not continue paying the consulting fees.

The dangers of such practices cannot be overstated. Rice, when left out at room temperature, becomes a breeding ground for Bacillus cereus, a bacterium known to cause food poisoning. Reheating it might kill the bacteria but doesn’t neutralize the toxins they produce. Similarly, dairy-based sauces and dishes, if improperly stored, can foster the growth of harmful pathogens. Serving such compromised food not only jeopardizes the reputation of an establishment but, more critically, poses severe health risks to diners.


The Mirage of Managerial Certification:

During my tenure with a consulting firm I choose not to name, one of the more alarming practices I observed was the fraudulent handling of the Food Safety Manager certification. The owner, in an unsettling display of disregard for public safety, would assign one of the consultants to take the Food Safety Manager exam on behalf of multiple restaurant managers who lacked the certification. It’s worth noting that in Texas, as is the case in most of the 50 states, there’s a requirement for a certified Food Safety Manager to be present during all operational hours of a food establishment. This certification ensures that at least one individual on-site has a comprehensive understanding of food safety practices and can oversee and enforce their correct application.

The implications of such fraudulent certifications are dire. Without a genuine understanding of food safety, establishments can inadvertently put the public at significant risk. For example:

  1. Temperature Mismanagement: An inadequately trained manager might not enforce strict temperature controls for foods, leading to bacterial growth. Consuming such food can result in foodborne illnesses.
  2. Cross-contamination: Without proper training, a manager might overlook risks like using the same cutting board for raw chicken and vegetables, leading to cross-contamination and potential outbreaks of diseases like salmonella.
  3. Improper Food Storage: A manager without authentic food safety training might allow the storage of raw meats above ready-to-eat foods, risking drips and further contamination.
  4. Inadequate Cleaning Protocols: The importance of regular, thorough cleaning and disinfection might be underestimated, leading to the persistence of pathogens in the environment.

By fraudulently obtaining certifications, these establishments are not only bypassing a crucial system of checks and balances but are also knowingly jeopardizing their patrons’ well-being. This was done as a selling point to establishments where most staff faced language barriers, and such a tactic further ensured the establishment’s dependency on the consulting firm due to the continuous lack of properly trained personnel.


The Deception of Food Handler Certification:

During my tenure with the same consulting firm, I personally witnessed consultants completing the Food Handler exams for the entire staff of certain establishments, notably at various Indian restaurants. The significance of this oversight is magnified when considering the cultural practices of many Indian communities. Eating with hands is an intrinsic part of the dining experience in many Indian settings, emphasizing the need for impeccable hand hygiene.

However, there’s also a cultural practice where, post-defecation, water is used, often with a cup or a handheld bidet, to cleanse oneself. While this practice can be hygienic when coupled with proper handwashing, without the foundational knowledge from the Food Handler courses, many staff members might not understand the critical importance of thoroughly washing their hands after such activities. This potentially puts patrons at even higher risk.

Consider the implications:

  1. Transmission of Illnesses: Direct hand-to-food contact can spread pathogens like E. coli, salmonella, or norovirus, especially if hands are not properly washed after restroom use.
  2. Contamination from Raw Foods: Handling raw foods followed by other foods or surfaces without washing hands facilitates cross-contamination.
  3. Spread of Respiratory Diseases: Respiratory diseases can be spread when an infected person touches their face and then handles food without washing their hands.

By sidestepping the genuine learning process through fraudulent certifications, staff members are deprived of essential knowledge. This isn’t just a lapse; it’s a critical failure. In bypassing these safeguards for the sake of financial gains, this consulting firm exposed countless patrons to unnecessary risk.


Evading Health Inspectors: A Deceptive Tactic:

During my time with the consulting firm, I was not only exposed to, but also participated in some distressing strategies. The impact of these tactics went beyond mere rule bending—they directly compromised food safety.

For instance, on more than one occasion, we would instruct the dishwashers to momentarily leave their stations when inspectors were around. The reason? These dishwashers were often uninformed or misinformed about the proper procedures for cleaning dishes using the 3-compartment sinks. By having them out of sight, we effectively avoided any potential violations that would arise from the inspectors observing their flawed cleaning methods.

But it didn’t stop there. We also frequently advised other staff members to stay away from the kitchen during these inspections. Many of them were unfamiliar with basic safety practices such as the correct use of gloves and proper handwashing techniques. Their absence meant that these glaring oversights, which could directly contribute to foodborne illnesses, remained undetected.

Reflecting on these experiences, the gravity of these tactics becomes painfully clear. By ensuring that staff who lacked proper training were kept out of the inspector’s view, we were facilitating a façade of compliance. While this might have kept the restaurant operational in the short-term, it perpetuated a risky environment where the health of diners was continually jeopardized.


In conclusion:

Food safety is not just a regulatory requirement—it’s a matter of public trust and well-being. Regrettably, in certain situations, there are practices that detract from the sincerity of safety measures, potentially compromising this trust.

Speaking out plays a pivotal role in bridging the gap between what’s promised and what’s practiced. Here’s why:

  1. Upholding Ethical Integrity: Everyone in the food industry, from top executives to kitchen staff, carries a moral responsibility to provide safe food. When discrepancies arise, it’s vital to have individuals willing to voice concerns and expose unethical behaviors.
  2. Protecting the Public: The most significant role of those who speak out is in safeguarding public health. Complacency with unsafe practices can lead to foodborne illnesses outbreaks, sometimes with severe consequences. By raising awareness, these individuals can avert potential health crises.
  3. Reinforcing Regulatory Importance: Speaking out emphasizes the crucial role of regulations in guaranteeing public safety. It sends a clear message that skirting the rules for short-term gains will not be tolerated.
  4. Driving Positive Change: More than just unveiling flaws, speaking out can act as a catalyst for genuine reform. Once malpractices come to light, both establishments and regulatory bodies feel the pressure to make corrections, leading to a more transparent and safer food industry.
  5. Empowering Others: Those who choose to speak out often inspire others to share their experiences, creating a collective call for change and a more accountable industry.

In advocating for a food industry that genuinely prioritizes its patrons’ well-being, speaking out—despite its challenges and the resistance it often faces—is crucial. By standing against deceptive practices and ensuring that establishments adhere to the highest standards, we can guarantee that every guest leaves not just satisfied but also safe.

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