Restaurant Guard Insurance Warns of the Risk Hiding in a Healthier Diet: Foodborne Illness

Leafy greens have evolved from being a kitchen staple to one of the nation’s most dangerous foods.

Citing an unexpected spike in people sickened by leafy greens over the past decade, Restaurant Guard Insurance Vice President and Program Director Crystal Jacobs today warned that the foodservice industry faces an array of new foodborne illness threats as Americans increasingly seek healthier, greener diets. 

“For many, eating healthier comes at a cost. Greens like Romaine are now one of the nation’s most susceptible foods for carrying the bacteria that cause foodborne illness,” Jacobs said today. “This has major implications for the restaurant and foodservice industry. Restaurant owner-operators of every kind need to be better-prepared to address this very real challenge, as more and more consumers look to them to provide healthier food choices.”

Jacobs cited the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) number of more than 1,000 people sickened by tainted lettuce over the last 10 years as an indication that restaurant owner-operators need to be more careful with their healthy options. While only 31 cases were reported in 2010, numbers spiked by the end of the decade, culminating with 331 sick people in 2018 and 146 in 2019.

“As a majority of consumers continue to demand healthy options, lettuce-contracted foodborne illness is going to continue to present restaurant owner-operators with unprecedented threat risks that can and should be accounted for in a comprehensive foodborne illness insurance protection plan,” Jacobs emphasized. 

There’s no way around it: Americans are increasingly seeking healthier diets. In a 2019 study, foodservice management consulting company Technomic found that 51% of consumers actively seek out nutritious foods, and 45% reported being very health-conscious. The margin widens further for millenials, as 51% of 25 to 34-year-olds say they’re health-conscious and 58% seek out nutritious foods. Nielsen conducted their own survey last month and garnered similar results. Two-thirds of the nearly 20,000 respondents said their eating habits changed for the better over the last five years, and three in 10 said they are making more healthy food choices than they were a year ago. 

For that health-conscious consumer, the options are numerous, but there is no choice more frequently presented than a salad. In 2011-2014, the U.S Department of Agriculture determined that of all salads eaten during that time period, 86 percent contained leafy greens – the very source of so many outbreaks over the last decade. For people aged 20 to 60 and older, supermarkets were the most common place to purchase salad, and full-service restaurants were right behind. 

In particular, restaurants that buy pre-chopped lettuce from suppliers put themselves at the greatest risk. The process of washing, cutting, and bagging the greens significantly increases the likelihood that it will become tainted. Furthermore, some disease-causing bacteria such as Listeria, salmonella or E. coli, are impossible to rinse off in some cases. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, “unacceptable” levels of bacteria that commonly cause foodborne illness were found in about a third of the 208 salad bags tested by Consumer Reports in a 2010 study. However, in spite of mounting evidence to do the contrary, Americans keep on buying. A joint calculation based on U.S. Census data and the Simmons National Consumer Survey found that 236.19 million Americans used bagged or packaged salads in 2019 and they project that number to climb to 246.86 million by 2023. 

“The truth is right in front of us, Americans are seeking more leafy green food options that will continue to put restaurants at a greater risk for a foodborne illness outbreak,” Jacobs asserted. “The good news is that, thanks to the tireless work of insurance providers across the country, the foodservice industry is becoming more aware of what resources they have to protect themselves against these growing risks — and implementing them in their daily professional lives. And, when it comes to a foodborne illness outbreak, truly innovative policies are a must to cover the multitude of varied, resulting expenses.”