Just when the issue seemed to have been safely tucked away, foodborne illness returned to the front page. In mid September, an E. coli outbreak caused by contaminated spinach reminded consumers that they cannot take the safety of the food they buy for granted. As federal officials worked strenuously to determine the cause of the outbreak, which caused hundreds of cases of food poisoning at this writing, the foodservice industry worked to assure the public that the situation was under control.
Vending operators, particularly those with commissaries and cafeterias, joined other foodservice operators in removing fresh spinach and assuring consumers there was nothing to worry about. While the majority of vending operators did not feel they were affected by the E. coli outbreak, many also recognized the need to maintain strict food handling procedures.
Vending operators interviewed at random in the weeks following the E. coli outbreak reported very few inquiries from customers about the problem, which reached nationwide proportions. Most operators said the concern was restricted to fresh, bagged spinach.
Many vending operators, including all of the nationals (Aramark, Compass Group and Sodexho), announced they were not serving fresh spinach in any accounts.
Many operators were quick to remind themselves of the training they provide their employees in safe food handling. The publicity surrounding the outbreak gave them an additional reason to make sure these training programs remain intact.
CL Swanson Corp., a Madison, Wis.-based vending and foodservice provider active in several states, did not want to draw a lot of attention to the issue, but made it a point to have all manual foodservice managers assure customers that everything was under control, noted Jeff Parks, president. "For the most part, the (affected) product was only available in the retail segment, not the institutional segment," Parks said.
Parks noted that drawing attention to an issue can have negative consequences. Sometimes the information itself can cause a customer to associate a malady with something they ate in a cafeteria.
Like most operations, CL Swanson does not use any spinach at all in its vend offerings.
SOME OPERATORS PULL SALADS
Some operators chose to pull salads from machines and manual operations, even though they did not use spinach.
"We did back off on our salads because I thought there might be some response," said Bob Bostelman, a partner at Maumee Valley Vending in Defiance, Ohio. While there were no calls from customers, Bostelman felt it made sense to take action to prevent any concern. "It (the outbreak) has a mushrooming effect," he said. "I do think people (in general) are more concerned about food supplies."
Bostelman thinks the fact that his company has been active in the community in food safety awareness has paid dividends. His commissary employees attend food safety seminars held by regulatory agencies. He has long been committed to food safety because in his view, fresh food is a major selling point.
Treat America Ltd., a multi-state vending and foodservice operation based in Kansas City, Mo., immediately removed all spinach, noted John Tracy, vice president of sales and marketing. The company received no calls due to the outbreak, but Tracy believes that it will create heightened public concern about food safety.
INDUSTRY ASSOCIATIONS HELP OPERATORS WITH TRAINING
Treat America educates its customers regularly about its safe practices in its customer newsletter. The company uses the National Restaurant Association's ServeSafe program in all of its manual foodservice operations. Vending route drivers are trained using the NAMA driver training materials.
Treat America's operations are also inspected regularly by municipal health officials. But to make sure that the employees are following procedures, the supervisors and managers conduct regular spot inspections of machines. "We're very focused on food sanitation and food safety," noted John Mitchell, Jr., company president.