When a foodservice operator finds him- or herself accused in a case of foodborne illness, the one of the first calls made in many cases is to Dr. Robert Powitz, one of only two forensic sanitarians in America. Although everyone in the industry is familiar with health inspectors, the concept of an investigator who deconstructs sanitation issues that lead to contamination is new to most. Powitz works with the justice system and on behalf of foodservice operators to help identify food safety issues in relation to litigation. Given that specialization, Powitz has a unique perspective on the history and future of food safety, and what restaurateurs can do to help prevent foodborne illness litigation against them.
Q: Can you give us a brief summary of what a forensic sanitarian does?
A:The biggest misnomer is the word ‘sanitarian’ itself. The word comes from the sanitary movement of 1840 and, finally, the sanitary commission during the Civil War. That’s where the profession started. It’s always been microbiologically or biologically oriented. We deal with stuff like insect-borne diseases, water-borne diseases, food-borne diseases, any environmentally-transmitted disease.
It’s basically trying to defend my clients against claims of foodborne illness or waterborne illness. I won’t perjure myself – it is what it is, in my profession. Most of these never go to court; they always get settled. Nobody wants to be known as the restaurant who gets sued. I do the same for insurance companies if they have a claim against them. I can either validate or refute that claim. If I work for defendants and the defendants are definitely liable, it is my duty as a forensic sanitarian to change some of their policies, procedures, and operations to minimize risk as much as humanly possible so that an incident cannot happen again. To me, it’s a win-win situation. Working for defendants, I have a greater opportunity to effect a positive change.
Q: What made you decide to be a forensic sanitarian? Did you start out elsewhere in the field before specializing?
A: I got into [forensic sanitation] quite by accident in the early- to mid-80s. I was called by a lawyer out of Columbus, Ohio, and it was a case on a dairy plant. The case was quite involved, and he said, “You know, you should go as a forensic sanitarian.” Ever since then, I did it part time for quite a while and then full time for the past 22 years.
Q: How do you go about tracing the origin of a foodborne illness outbreak?
A: The first thing to find out is what to sample, and it may not always be obvious. We do what is called a mini plan review, where you look at the menu, look at the kitchen, look at the storage facilities, and say, “Is the kitchen and are the storage facilities adequate for the menu?” I’ll take a stool and sit in the corner of a kitchen. On a graph paper, I’ll draw the kitchen – tables, mixers, everything that’s there. Then, using a colored pencil, use different colors for the personnel that are working there. As they move, I trace their movement. Just doing that, you can see where the potential is for cross-contamination. You can also see how often they wash their hands.
Then I take a look at the food source itself, where it comes from. If they do HACCP, they’re monitoring the food coming in, monitoring the food while it’s in storage, dating, they’re doing all these things, and I can find the risk factors in the food before it’s even handled. At this point, they’ll bring in someone like a laboratory to narrow it down a little bit, and now you can do your sample. What you’re doing is narrowing it down.
Q:Sanitation forensics or food safety forensics are not currently one of the forensic disciplines accepted by the American Academy of Forensic Scientists. Is that something you hope to see change?
A: I’m part of the American College of Forensic Examiners, and one of the things that I’ve found is that not even they understand what I do. The truth be known, there are only two of us in the United States right now. We’re not known. The science isn’t known. There’s no glory in sanitizing a turd, I always say.
Q: Aside from following basic HACCP protocols and local sanitation regulations, what is the best way restaurants can protect themselves against litigation?
A: I think the easiest starts with a plan review. What a plan review does is look at the menu, the storage facilities, [and] frequency of deliveries. If they match the menu with the capability of the kitchen, you’ve already reduced your risk tremendously. Then the only other thing you have to worry about after that is where they get their food from, how they store their food in terms of temperature, and, of course, the people. Let your folks stay home if they have an enteric illness. Enforce handwashing, or make it so that hands are washed regularly.
Q: Do you have any sanitation horror stories from your time inspecting or consulting?
A: In the 70s, there was a national push with a national prison project. I went, nationwide, into jails and prisons, where you would not believe the condition of the kitchens. The roach and rat and mice infestations, the filth, the mold – you name it. That has all changed now for the better. I can’t think of anything recently within the last 20 [or] 30 years that has been so egregious. You just don’t find it anymore. The horror stories of the past, those were interesting, but they have no lesson for the future.
Q: What is the most common error you see when it comes to food safety?
A: The ones having to do with people. We tend to get cavalier with people handwashing. What the medical industry has done, it forced the support staff and physicians to drastically change their personal hygiene habits. It’s also forced the housekeeping services to look at biological soil removal in deference to aesthetic. In other words, push plates, phones, flush knobs, that kind of business. So the restaurant industry has not caught up with that yet. Some have, don’t get me wrong, but for the most part they have not.
In any industry, you go to any of the plants that make the cars, the UAW and the automakers like General Motors or Chrysler, what they do is they have what’s called Toolbox Training at the beginning of a shift. Toolbox Training is a 5-minute session on personal protection, lockout, tagout – it’s industry based. We don’t do that in the retail food industry, it’s very rarely done, and we need to start doing that.
Q:: You’ve been working in foodservice sanitation for over 50 years. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in that time?
A: There are new things being introduced, but I think the capstone of everything is still the litigation. The fact that we had lawsuits resulting from foodborne illness has brought about the biggest change ever to an industry. When Jack in the Box suffered that horrific loss of the E. coli outbreak and loss of life, they hired a sanitarian called Dave Theno. So what Dave did, he looked at suppliers, and he looked at the way things were handled from hoof to bun, and it was amazing the changes that were brought about in the industry itself. These changes were embraced immediately by McDonald’s, Burger King, Hardee’s, Wendy’s, all of these. Everybody embraced these changes. It was not code changes. This was risk-based litigation that forced the changes, and in my lifetime, that I think has had the greatest influence on the industry that I can think of.
If you take a company like McDonald’s, and you put their standard operating procedures next to the [FDA] Food Code, everything that’s in the Food Code is covered in their standard operating procedures, except their standard operating procedures have 10 times more the information or 100 times more information and explanation than the Food Code. The industry has surpassed the regulation, and that’s almost universal. Regulators still find problems, but for the most part, the industry has surpassed. So the inspector comes in, big deal. You change a lightbulb and you’re done. Not so if a lawyer comes knocking.