As the threat of avian flu hitting the UK increases by the day, it is imperative that the catering industry has adequate crisis management plans in place to deal with any eventuality, writes Sarah Lelic, Editor, mad.co.uk.
While, at the time of writing, the UK is still mercifully free of the virus, experts are united in the belief that it is a question of when, not if, the virus invades both our wild bird and our domestic fowl populations. This being the case, it is essential that all levels of the food and catering industry in this country understands what needs to be done both to minimise any risk to public health and also to reduce any long-term brand damage to specific catering organisations.
At present, both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) are insisting that bird flu poses no risk to humans via the food chain. While this is almost certainly the case, it remains to be seen whether the Government will change its stance on the preparation and consumption of eggs and poultry when the virus actually hits these shores.
In the mean time, the question for caterers and restaurateurs is really whether anything can be done in the interim period. Fortunately there is, and in many ways the food industry is in a strong position on this issue. After all, there are not many crises that hit with this much warning, particularly in the sensitive area of food.
Firstly, it is imperative that caterers make sure they know the exact details of their poultry supply chain and maintain good contacts with all links in that chain. If the virus does enter the food chain in the UK, then swift action in identifying exactly where and who has been affected will be of paramount importance.
It is also essential that staff handling and preparing both poultry and eggs adhere to FSA guidelines on the matter in order to eliminate any chances of cross-infection – albeit that this is very rare. However, it must be remembered that the public are in a heightened state of awareness on this issue and it will not take long for rumours, or even any hint of a bad eating experience, to negatively impact on brand reputation.
And what of continuing to serve chicken and poultry products? Fast-food chain McDonald’s has already come under fire for hinting to a national newspaper that it was working on a number of contingency plans should bird flu strike the UK, including taking all of its chicken products off the menu. While this may seem to many members of the public to be the right thing to do under the circumstances, those involved in the poultry trade have criticised the fast-food giant for hitting the panic button unnecessarily.
This in a nutshell is the tightrope that caterers, restaurateurs and hoteliers have to walk regarding bird flu. On one hand they must ensure that the proper procedures are adhered to and public safety is put at the centre of everything they do. But at the same time it is crucial that the flames of panic are not fanned further by rash moves that will cause untold damage to the UK poultry industry. Whether this juggling act can be pulled off remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that interesting times lie ahead.
By Sarah Lelic