If you work in retail food service, you’ve probably seen a customer with an animal at your workplace. Maybe you’ve brought an animal to a restaurant or grocery store yourself. And it’s hard to blame you! People form close bonds with their animals, and who wants to leave a dog behind when his tail starts to wag? It’s important to know, though, that animals and food safety don’t always mix.
How can animals contaminate food?
Like people, animals carry many bacteria and viruses on and in their bodies. While people can wash their hands, though, training animals in hygiene can be more difficult. Also, animals tend to spend a lot of time outdoors or in cages in close contact with their urine and droppings. Finally, furred animals like dogs and cats may shed — a lot.
The CDC keeps a running list of U.S. disease outbreaks related to contact with animals. Many of the associated pathogens, like strains of Salmonella and Campylobacter, can spread through food. That’s why live animals are generally not allowed in restaurants and food stores. If animals come in contact with food or surfaces that touch food, people who eat the food may become ill. These illnesses can be especially dangerous for babies, toddlers, adults over 65, and people with compromised immune systems.
When are animals allowed?
There are a few notable exceptions to the “no animals” rule. First, service animals are allowed in public areas of restaurants and food stores. These animals are trained to perform important tasks to help people with disabilities. Because of their thorough training, they are unlikely to contaminate food. In the unlikely event that a service animal causes a health or safety hazard, the owner may need to take the animal out of the establishment.
Be aware that pets and comfort animals are not service animals. According to the ADA National Network, “the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship are not considered work or tasks under the definition of a service animal.” That means that pets and comfort animals are not allowed in restaurants and food stores.
Police and security officers may also bring patrol dogs into dining, sales, and storage areas at retail food businesses.
Restaurants and food stores may keep fish and shellfish in display tanks. They may also display live shellfish on ice or under refrigeration.
Last but not least, some cities may allow pet owners to bring animals to outdoor dining areas. As long as the pet does not have contact with anyone’s food, they should not pose a significant health risk.
What can food handlers do to keep food safe?
A simple way to let customers know that animals are not allowed is to post a sign near the entrance of your building. It’s a good idea to include a simple explanation of the rule on the sign. If customers know that pets may compromise food safety, they may be more willing to respect the rule.
Of course, some customers may not notice the sign, and others may not be deterred if they do. If you see a customer with a poorly behaved animal in your workplace, you may need to ask them to leave.
Navigating this conversation can be uncomfortable. Some customers may become upset if you ask them to take their animals outside. Just remember, the well-being of other customers may depend on your actions!
It’s a good idea to talk to a manager or supervisor about the best way to handle this type of situation. In some cases, they may ask to handle the interaction themselves.
Here are a few considerations when discussing animals with your customers:
- If the need for an animal is not obvious (like a guide dog for a blind person), you are allowed to ask if an animal is necessary because of a disability. You can even ask what work or task the animal performs. You may not ask what the person’s disability is, though, or require them to prove their disability.
- Always be polite and respectful when requesting that a customer remove an animal. Follow your employer’s policies on dealing with these types of situations. Be careful not to accuse the customer of anything. It may be helpful to frame the request in terms of your situation. For example, you might ask, “Would you mind taking your pet outside? We are required to keep animals out of the store to keep our food safe.”
If you suspect that a food item has been contaminated by an animal, you need to throw it away. You should also clean and sanitize any surfaces that may be contaminated, especially if they are likely to touch food. If you touch an animal at work, wash your hands before you handle food or other surfaces.
For more information on food safety at work, check out our food handlers training.
What can consumers do to keep food safe?
As consumers, we should do our part to maintain food safety at the businesses we visit. Do not bring pets inside restaurants or food stores. Also, do not use pet clothes that imitate service animal vests. While your pet is adorable, the joke may be confusing or hurtful to others.
Finally, please recognize that a comfort animal is not the same as a service animal. Remember that these regulations are in place to help keep you — and those around you — safe.
— Katie Heil
Download/print cartoon: Service Dogs