Whether it's Hepatitis A in frozen berries or huntsmen spiders in bags of grapes, companies that distribute contaminated food don't usually go out of business. They clean up, fix problems and move on. If they handled the outbreak well, their food should be safe, but we understand if you're a little skittish. Here's what you need to know.
It's impossible to guarantee that food is safe, whether there's been a recent outbreak or not. Depending on how careful you are about food safety at home, the food at restaurants and from factories might even be safer. Those producers have requirements to test the temperature of their refrigerators, for example and the amount of time food sits in the danger zone.
But when a company has an outbreak, obviously something has gone wrong. It may be a bad batch of ingredients or an ongoing, systemic problem in how they run their business. Either way, it's the company's responsibility to make sure that Listeria or Salmonella or E. coli don't make it to your plate. Understanding what goes on after the outbreak may put your mind at ease — or at least allow you to do some better-informed worrying.
They Notify You (Hopefully)
It's best for the public if the offending company acts right away to close stores or recall products. Fortunately, companies have begun to realise that acting quickly is in their best interests too. Food Standards Australia New Zealand can force a recall usually the companies recall products voluntarily.
Crisis management specialist Gene Grabowski, who worked with US company Blue Bell Creameries during its infamous listeria outbreak in ice cream this year, told International Business Times: "You don't wait for the government to require a response because the government isn't responsible for your reputation."
Blue Bell didn't act quickly enough, he said. They recalled small batches of ice cream before "rip[ping] the band-aid off," closing all of their plants and issuing a massive recall. FDA reports showed that the company had known about contamination years earlier and didn't do enough to address the problem.
The Mexican restaurant chain Chipotle responded to the current E. coli outbreak by quickly closing 43 stores and responding to customers' comments on social media. They still could have done better, according to crisis communicator Aaron Kwittken, who notes that they should have updated their web site sooner with information about the outbreak.
In New Zealand and Australia, you can keep tabs of government food recalls by visiting the Food Standards' website.
They Look For the Source, But May Not Be Able to Find It
It's reassuring to know that the source of an outbreak has been found. But that's not always possible: Investigations take time, and sometimes the source of contamination was already eaten and gone by the time authorities, or the company, went looking for it.
So far, Chipotle has no idea what caused their E. coli outbreaks. The illness takes a week to start showing symptoms. Samples from the restaurants didn't have any E. coli, which makes sense: if the contaminated food was a batch of tomatoes, say, or lettuce, that food would have been served and gone in a matter of days.
Even the most recent outbreak, announced this week, involves cases that happened last year. So when you hear about an outbreak unfolding, remember that information lags behind the actual spread of the illness.
If the contaminated food is longer lasting, or if the problem is an ongoing one at a factory (rather than just a single bad batch of ingredients), detective work is more likely to pay off. The FDA put together this video to explain how they tracked down a 2009 salmonella outbreak to its source in a peanut butter factory:
If they can find the source, the next stage is easier: where companies try to fix the problem so it can't happen again.
They Change the Way They Do Things
First, of course, they clean everything. Before Chipotle's stores could reopen, they had to throw out all their food and sanitize every surface.
Blue Bell's first job after closing its ice cream plants was intensive cleaning, followed by a plan to never let things get so dirty again. Rather than a single bad batch, their problem was contamination in multiple plants, over the course of years — the 2015 recall was preceded by problems in 2013 and possibly as early as 2010.
Sometimes, fixing the problem can require a complete reversal in a company's philosophy. Odwalla built its juice business on the idea that juice is healthier and better tasting when it's not pasteurised, and that there's no danger as long as fruit is picked and handled according to guidelines — for example, picking apples off the tree rather than using apples that have fallen on the ground. But in 1996, a batch of apples came in with E. coli contamination, leading to an outbreak that killed a toddler. The company reversed their position, and now pasteurizes their juices.
Foster Farms also changed significantly after their 2013 outbreak of multi-drug-resistant Salmonella that sickened hundreds. Tracking down the source was tricky, because Salmonella is fairly common in poultry. It turned out that the flock in one of the chicken houses had a persistent infection with the Salmonella strain involved in the outbreak, and that the usual steps in processing chicken resulted in higher bacterial counts.
Since then, Foster Farms has reduced their risk of Salmonella by doing things like vaccinating their hens against it. The company lists their anti-Salmonella practices here, and boasts that they have reduced their Salmonella rate on cut-up chicken parts to 5%.
Chipotle uses produce from many small suppliers, which can make it more difficult for them to ensure that all the suppliers are keeping their food safe. Their strategy to minimise risk, going forward, is a smart one: instead of switching suppliers, they're now chopping, sanitizing, and DNA-testing vegetables at central prep kitchens. This will reduce the risk of contamination no matter where the veggies came from.
They Try to Return to Normal
After an outbreak, companies try to reassure customers that the danger has passed. Blue Bell is returning to its former ice cream markets one phase at a time, replaying its original expansion into those areas. Chipotle's plan includes full-page ads and direct mail coupons to encourage customers to come back to stores. Unfortunately, the delay in recognising outbreaks meant that a spate of cases were announced just after the company made its changes. To be sure that the new procedures are preventing outbreaks, we'll have to wait a few more weeks.
You can never be guaranteed that food is safe, whether there's been a recent outbreak or not. Paying attention to the news is your best bet if you want to find out whether an outbreak is over, and what the company is doing to prevent another one. And if you're not sure, feel free to eat a different brand of food or make it yourself using raw produce.