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'It's a very complex subject': Food scientist weighs in on Carl's Jr. violations caught on camera

Need for speed sometimes leads to faulty decision-making, says microbiologist

Stephen Hunt, CBC News Aug 24, 2017 

How concerned should we be about food safety?

It's a question that might be on the mind of a few Albertans after videos of a Carl's Jr. co-franchisee in Red Deer mishandling food surfaced this week.

· 'Disgusting behaviour' caught on video at fast food restaurant in Red Deer, Alta.

Keith Warriner, a food microbiologist and professor of food science at the University of Guelph, spoke to the Calgary Eyeopener about the impact it might have on consumers. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Should we be worried about food safety in restaurants?

A: It's a very complex subject. In actual fact, many years ago now, using your hands was the thing to do [with food preparation]. It was actually easier to stir it with your hand than a spoon. 

I think in this (Red Deer) case, we had a few things going on. One is that he's probably always done it like that since he started being a chef. But one of the more interesting aspects is that he probably thought, I am the boss. I can do whatever I want.

The other thing about it is that he thought he could justify it, and he justifies it by saying, "I need to get this done quickly," when he cross-contaminates the raw chicken with the handle; when he picked up the chicken from the actual floor, he justified himself by saying "it's a case of speed."

We did a study, two years ago now, at Ryerson University and Public Health here (at Guelph), where we tried to look into why do people do what they do. We went to a few restaurants ... and what we found is that most of the time, people take the lead from the manager. So when the manager does something wrong, they think that's the right thing to do.

Another big thing we found, which we think is obvious, is that people tend to disconnect themselves to say, this is food. They see it as a product ... so there are complex interactions there why people do these things.

Q: What impact do incidents like these have on a brand?

A: That's another interesting fact. With franchises, what we tend to find is when we get videos like this — and who could forget the taco licking boy from 2013 — it doesn't have that much influence on the brand, because people tend to focus on the individual, rather than the actual brand name.

It's interesting as well, like with Chipotle in 2014, which isn't a franchise, it's a chain, they really got hammered. It wasn't even a big infraction, it was a little one.... But with this video, for example, they tend to focus on the individual rather than the actual brand. 

I put it down to the fact that a lot of these fast food restaurants, we're actually in love with them. People go to McDonald's every day.

Q: How concerned should we really be?

A: It's getting more serious now, because we can actually trace food-borne illness better. There are a lot of restaurants which are being implicated for things like hepatitis A and salmonella.

So what we really need to do is use our senses. When we go into a restaurant and the front isn't good, or the washroom isn't good — you know the front of a restaurant is as good as it gets [when it comes to cleanliness]. Yes, definitely be concerned.

Especially if you get lukewarm food coming to you, or you can see something wrong with it. The thing about restaurants is that most try to get away with certain things and you've just got to pick up on it. Use your senses.

Q: Is the bathroom a good indicator of overall cleanliness of a restaurant?

A: Yes, for sure. If you go into a washroom and they've got no soap or it looks dirty and things, it's obvious [that] they don't care about that washroom, so why would they care about the ones at the back as well?

Washrooms are a very good sign. [And keep an eye on] the bar staff. If you see the bar staff handling ice with bare hands, that gives you an indication of what the culture's like, so these are all little signs.