Navigating food safety in off premise

As restaurant operators grapple with food safety challenges within their four walls, the question remains on how it also will impact their off-premise operation.  However, there are ways restaurant operators can stay ahead of the challenge. That includes maintaining food safety standards within their four walls and adequate legal protection once food leaves the store.

“Brands need to make sure that what they can control is as stellar as it can be. Delivery companies also need to maintain that safety as much as possible,” said Ruth Petran, Ecolab’s vice president of food safety and public health.

That means brands should work with third-party food delivery companies on the establishment of food safety standards and protocols. Drivers also should be trained on what those protocols are.

“My expectation as a consumer is that if I use a third-party service, the food is maintained in a safe environment and that is a layer of complexity that needs to be considered,” Petran said. “It’s an inevitable outcome that those entities will have to think about food safety more broadly. At best, we can get to a standardized approach and we can level the playing field for everyone.”

There are two pieces to food safety in delivery. There is the traditional component such as time, temperature and cross contact, and then there is the issue of diners with food allergens and special dietary needs.

“Both have to be paid attention to,” said Betsy Craig, founder, MenuTrinfo. “Once it goes out your door, that’s when food safety becomes a factor. If it’s your food and something happens, then it’s your fault because delivery drivers can always say that’s how the order left the restaurant. Even when you have delivery, you have to know food safety on both sides of the aisle.”

Restaurant operators should ensure that delivery companies are made aware of food safety issues and require them to maintain food safety as much as possible.

“They should be aware of the right temperatures and then make sure they provide the right information to consumers,” said Petran. “Another thing to keep in mind is that we are all different people and we’re dealing with aging population. These companies are serving a range of consumers and they need to be aware of who those consumers are. So it could be that an additional level of training and awareness is what’s needed.”

While food safety mandates vary state-by-state, restaurant contracts with third-party delivery companies can be negotiated to include food safety specifications. This can include the requirement that drivers use hot/cold bags to keep food temperatures safe and that no more than a fixed amount of time can pass between pick-up and drop-off.

“We can regulate food safety requirements contractually and if the delivery company stays within the contract terms, there shouldn’t be any issues. The contract should also cover many things beyond food safety issues,” said Anna Graves, a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and co-leader of their Restaurant, Food & Beverage Industry Group. “We can control pricing, ordering methods, pick-up procedures, reporting requirements, complaint processing, and minimum insurance levels, as well as other matters such as limiting the number of stops drivers can make and ordering and delivery time promises.  Contractually, if a delivery company breaches its obligations in the agreement, the delivery company is responsible for resulting losses.  If the issue arises because of something that occurred at the restaurant, obviously it’s not the delivery company’s problem.”

Graves said restaurant operators should be wary of working with delivery providers that offer services to consumers without having formal contracts in place with the restaurant companies.

“You can’t use someone else’s trademarks and copyrighted materials like logos and menus for your own profit,” she said.  “My firm hasn’t litigated it fully yet, but we have filed a lawsuit against an unauthorized delivery company, and most of the commentary in the press and on social media was favorable for the restaurant.  Ultimately, it’s about trust and integrity. Many restaurant companies would rather forego delivery revenue than have their food be less than it is, particularly menu items which don’t travel well.  And the decision whether to allow delivery should always be up to the restaurant.”

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