After getting sick on several visits to Latin America, I realized that there has to be a better way for travelers to find safe food. Online reviews didn’t prevent me from getting sick. Printed travel guides didn’t prevent me from getting sick. Eating only at nice restaurants didn’t prevent me from getting sick. After taking several courses of Ciprofloxacin (antibiotic) in one year, something had to give or something more terrible was going to happen to me, like contracting C. Diff Colitis (Clostridium Difficile - a bad infection).
Then the idea for Cocina Verify came to me. Travelers need standards, not hearsay. With 20 countries and 6 protectorates in Latin America, the uniformity of food safety standards is not high. All of Latin America can have the highest standards in the world, but if local governments do not enforce the standards, then restaurant owners don’t need to be bothered with following the standards and thus foodborne illness becomes more and more common.
One disturbing trend we are witnessing in Latin America is that when people address potential foodborne illness concerns with restaurant managers, the typical response is a flat-out denial that it could have happened at their restaurant. Here are the problems with that:
1. That type of a response is a poor business practice. Restaurants should seriously address claims of foodborne illness and reassure their guests that they will review their procedures to identify the possibility of foodborne illness originating at the restaurant. Showing that your restaurant genuinely cares about the safety of the customers will help build trust and loyalty.
2. Unfortunately, the restaurant manager who takes the call likely does not do anything to double check the procedures happening in the kitchen.
3. If the restaurant manager receives this complaint, the chance that it gets to the owner of the restaurant is very low.
4. No restaurant in the world is immune from getting people sick. Restaurants should never think they are above the possibility of getting someone sick. Perfection in food safety is impossible, so risk reduction is the name of the game.
5. Conditions we often see in restaurant kitchens in Latin America are conducive to getting people sick, such as no soap in employee bathrooms - just to name one of many.
6. Finally, the issues associated with foodborne illness are not much of a concern with restaurant owners in general throughout Latin America. That is a generalization, but one that has been made after speaking with hundreds of restaurants throughout the region.
Employees who are properly trained in food safety know that when a customer calls to report that they may have gotten sick at their restaurant, there are steps that must be taken. Simply denying the possibility that they may have gotten sick at their restaurant is doing the customer, the public, and the restaurant a major disservice.
There are several steps that are covered in a proper food safety training course that restaurants should follow in these cases. For the sake of excitement, I won’t bore you with the steps that should be followed. Bottom line, if you get sick after eating at a restaurant, you should call and notify them that you may have gotten sick at their restaurant. It is best not to accuse them, because without adequate detective work and testing, it can be difficult to definitively prove that the restaurant made you sick. If the restaurant quickly dismisses your claim, then there is no reason to visit that restaurant again because they do not care about your safety or the safety of others.
The stories and experiences are only going to get better in the coming blogs. I didn’t start this company because of one bout of diarrhea. I wish I could have closed my eyes and turned my head on all those trips to Latin America, but the more I witnessed, the more I wanted to protect my fellow travelers. Stay tuned!