Monday, November 1, 2010

Food Smarts: Food Safety and Warning Labels … ?


You have been in business for 10 years, 15 years, 30 years, or just starting out. You have your menu designed and you have complied with all Health Department requirements. You are open for business. You have taken your Food Service Manager Certification course and now you are petrified. What if your customers get sick? What if someone dies? Are they or their family are going to come after you in court? You now reconsider taking oysters on the half shell off of the menu and what about those rare steaks or eggs over easy that don’t meet minimum internal cooking temperatures?  OMG, what about that 92-year-old customer who comes in every Tuesday for your half-price burger special and orders it with the works – rare!?

Are you going to refuse your customer his usual order of the rare hamburger with a side of eggs-over- easy or those raw oysters on the half shell?  Should you make him sign a legal waiver before he eats his risky food order? No, of course not, but what can you do to protect yourself?

Have you ever thought about putting an advisory label on your menu? Some local, state or national governments have done the thinking for you. The Wikipedia Free Dictionary defines a warning label as “a label attached to an item, or contained in an item's instruction manual, warning the user about risks associated with the use of the item as intended by the manufacturer or seller. Most of them are intended to limit civil liability in lawsuits against the item's manufacturer or seller. That sometimes results in labels which for some people seem to state the obvious.” 

We can thank the 1994 lawsuit against McDonald’s for our bigger warning labels on our coffee cups, “Caution: Hot.” Legitimate and frivolous lawsuits have made many products you purchase in this day and age have some very strange warning labels like: “Warning: This product contains nuts.” on a container of peanuts, to “Do not eat packet” found on Homel Pepperoni and looking at my curling iron, it states: “Warning: Keep away from children” and “Caution: This product can burn eyes.”

One of my favorite clients goes straight to the point and on his menus has put the following warnings: “Eat rare steak at your own risk” and “Eat eggs-over-easy at your own risk.” Some jurisdictions require language that conforms to more serious legalese.  We can laugh, but they are on the right path to protecting their establishment and themselves.

Consider protecting yourself and your establishment by putting a consumer advisory on your menu.  An example:  “Those in high risk populations, i.e. the elderly, pregnant women, young children or sick – please consult with your physician before consuming … (list all potentially hazardous ingredients from your menu here i.e.)  under cooked eggs, alfalfa sprouts, raw shellfish, undercooked hamburger meat, non-pasteurized juice.”

The advisory label can also be a tool to warn those with the eight most common food allergens: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat.

How far will our industry need to go with warning labels on our food? That is a much debated question now. There was much talk that “Fast Food” should have warning labels like cigarette packets. We realize that there are some insane warning labels out there, but for the time being, it might be smart to be ahead of the issue by placing a consumer advisory on your menu. Talk to your chef and your staff – find out what they are hearing from experts and your customers. We all know someone with a serious allergy or medical condition – it is not as far-fetched as it once appeared to be.

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Juliet Bodinetz-Rich is the executive director of Bilingual Hospitality Training and has over 25 years industry and training experience.  Her team of instructors’ specialty is food safety and ServSafe training in English or in Spanish and writing HACCP Plans in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. Metro Area., or 443-838-7561

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