Food Safety Implications of Raw Food and Juice Bars

As I mentioned in my previous write up of restaurant safety, the trend towards whole and uncooked foods carries an increased risk to consumers, and it is not clear that the businesses that are moving towards serving these riskier menu items know, or are capitalized to build a food safety program robust enough to properly mitigate that risk.

One very recent trend in the Midwest is the opening of juice bars and raw food restaurants that have dotted the coasts for a while now. This move to purchase high-end drinks, salads and raw food bowls is frequently (if not exclusively) marketed as a push towards helping people look and feel better.  The use of more exotic ingredients and the removal of preservatives, fats, oils and processed sugars is heavily marketed for these establishments. I applaud this dietary push, but it also makes me very concerned for the general safety of my community as well as food safety nationally.

The biggest problem with this trend is that consumers are going into the establishment looking for a healthy dietary choice, and many are unaware that they are making a more dangerous choice at the same time. Further confusing the matter is the aggressive marketing that most of these new establishments utilize. Specific and vague health claims add to this sense that everything sold is going to improve the customer’s overall health. If you are someone who frequents or occasions a juice bar, just check your own feelings as you go in. I imagine that you’ll feel a sense of being decent and healthy.

Unfortunately, selling uncooked or unpasteurized products to consumers carries significant danger. Nutrient dense foods are dangerous environments (think of a rainforest or a compost pile), which is an ecologically intuitive concept, but not popularly understood. Those enzymes, natural sugars, vitamins and minerals are the building blocks or your body, no question. They are also the building blocks of pathogenic bacteria, and if they are present in the raw vegetables or in the establishment, the juice will also have it. It is safe to assume that a food poisoning outbreak caused by a juice bar or raw food restaurant anywhere in the US is going to have serious and severe ramifications on that industry.  

Personally, I think any move towards consuming healthier options is positive. The American diet is unnecessarily unhealthy, and we can and should eat less food overall, and more healthy foods specifically. Restaurants and grocery store chains that spread this message are by and large doing honorable work. The problem lies in the fact that the restaurant and juice bars themselves are at enormous risk if their patrons fall ill because the juice they are serving is carrying a pathogen. It is true that pasteurizing liquids is heavy handed and removes a lot of positive bacteria from foods and drinks. But pasteurizing is a very old practice, and it was discovered by an extremely legitimate scientist (Louis Pasteur). There is no conspiracy about why pasteurization was adopted as a practice over a century ago, and when we remove that safe guard, we are going to have to deal with the consequences, the scope of which hasn’t been seen in our modern culture. The same goes for uncooked foods in general. They have a wider range of microorganisms, but they are far more dangerous. Throw in the odd circumstance of serving high-end customers that expect a healthy outcome in their dietary practices, and the recipe for disaster is in place.

This really is the nature of the risk for raw food and juice bars. If you serve people who expect more from their food, they are going to be far more likely to punish your business if they are poisoned by contaminated foods. Businesses are free to extol the virtues of raw and natural food processing, but they will pay the price for the costs of removing pasteurization and heat treatment from the process. And that cost will be very sick people, sooner or later. 

A cross fit enthusiast who is also only eating raw foods and nuts is doing so out of a desire for improved physique and health. If and when that person fall ill due to a severe food poisoning event, believe me that they will be far more vocal and news worthy than someone who gets ill at a low end fast food chain.

For me, I see a strong parallel between juice bars and raw food restaurants and the anti-vaccine movement. This undoing of safeguards in the spirit of saving people is well intentioned but terrifying. Many of the people pushing these trends have not mastered the knowledge base to make this kind of change safely, and as a result, the population is at greater risk overall, while getting only small incremental benefits in exchange.

Something to think about for both consumers and restaurateurs moving into raw food and juice is the next time a pathogen outbreak occurs because of these foods is whether it is worth it for those who are made ill by consuming these items. Is a lifetime of Crohn’s Disease or miscarriage balanced by the health implications of a bottle of juice? Now picture the news articles that will follow that event. It might only happen to a small number of customers, and it might not happen at your specific restaurant, but when it does happen (and it is only a matter of time before it does), it is going to effect this industry much more negatively than it would the quick serve restaurants and the cheap chains.

Spending the extra time and resources to put a safety program in place that acknowledges the high risk being taken is essential to preventing a crisis, and my hope is that owners are adding that to their budgets in the coming year.