Ask an Ethicist: Reporting food safety problems

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In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: If I am working for a local restaurant and I notice that the head chef (who also happens to be the owner of the restaurant) is using ingredients that are not "fresh" and could possibly cause the customers to get sick, how do I go about dealing with this? Do I confront the owner? Do I call the health board? What would be the best way to go about this issue quietly without bringing negative attention to the restaurant?

An ethicist responds:

Serving safe and healthy food is not just an issue of legal responsibility but an ethical one, too. Setting food safety standards is the easier part of the puzzle. What is more challenging for food service establishments is to actually implement those standards. Our research suggests implementing food safety standards involves costs, such as improving storage facilities and often buying a variety of equipment, including, but not limited to, new thermometers to monitor temperatures. However, the costs that are often ignored are those we do not see stated on financial statements, such as someone's time and effort to ensure food is safe and fresh. Based on related research, I have a strong inclination such costs have a stronger influence on whether a restaurant would comply with food safety standards when compared to other costs that can be easily documented and measured.

It is often the time and effort cost of implementing food safety standards that management often struggles with, tries to avoid, or acts myopically. A simple piece of information could create more awareness for management and may change their food safety practices. For instance, one could ask the chef or the manager how much do they think it would cost if a food safety violation case leads to a lawsuit (this could include loss of their job due to mishandling of food, financial fines, legal ramifications, and loss of reputation). Comparing such costs of violation to the relatively lower costs of time or effort needed to implement the standards may help the management make a more informed choice.  

So can such issues be reported to local authorities? The answer is absolutely yes. In fact, as a customer I have reported such matters to the local county's Department of Health anonymously (although it’s hard to avoid leaving your phone number with phone identification technology!). One could also report it through the local government’s health services website or even by sending a letter through traditional mail.

The issue gets more complicated if you are an employee in the restaurant. As an employee, one could report this anonymously to the health department, although there is always the possibility that the management might suspect the source. Another possible issue related to employee complaints is that such complaints could be made by a disgruntled employee that has either recently left employment of the restaurant or has been asked to do so. Therefore, if as an employee you must report the issue, then do so in an ethical manner, for the right reasons. Otherwise the complaint loses its legitimacy.  

However, there may also be a more constructive way to deal with this situation. As an employee, you also are ethically responsible to find out why food safety standards are not being implemented effectively. First, it might be helpful to understand what type of food safety issue has occurred. Oftentimes food may not look fresh, but it is not necessarily harmful to eat. A common example is brown lettuce: While the look of the lettuce may not be appealing, it is not necessarily unsafe to eat. On the other hand, dairy, meat, poultry and seafood may not be fresh and therefore unsafe to eat.

Certain food-handling practices could also be a source of concern. For instance, leaving raw meats, seafood and poultry at room temperature (out of refrigeration) for longer than 2 hours or thawing food incorrectly is unsafe and not recommended. Developing proper procedures, training employees, and discouraging individuals to violate such procedures could help prevent such violations. Offering or volunteering to help the chef implement standards effectively could easily turn this challenge into an opportunity. This can be done by helping to make the chef more aware of the issues and the costs of following standards versus not following them. 

You could also assess why certain standards are not being followed. Often the reasons are not so apparent but easy to fix. See if you can work with the management to create change and in the process deliver on your responsibility to the organization. Showing you care for the health and well-being of your customers, and that of the business you work for, will get you commendations from the chef and management, and it will also provide you valuable experience of how to actually implement standards, beyond simply creating them. However, if the chef/owner refuses to reason and does not entertain changes to ensure safer food, then of course you have a moral responsibility to report violations that could be harmful to customers. It is true you risk being discovered, and it is also possible you might face a backlash. While there are always legal ways to deal with it, if I am in such a situation, I would also reflect on whether I would like to be employed by someone who is not committed to the safety of their consumers.

Amit Sharma is associate professor of hospitality finance and director of the Food Decisions Research Laboratory. His research focuses on investigating the impact of cost-benefit information on food decisions.

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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.

Amit Sharma is an associate professor in Penn State's School of Hospitality Management. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated August 19, 2016