We've all been there. You think you know everything there is to know about food safety. But with restaurants ordering higher volumes of fresh produce and specialty proteins, a lot of which come from smaller, local purveyors, operators should employ a few extra steps to maintain a clean and food-safe operation.
In honor of National Food Safety Month's theme of "Let it Flow" we've decided to examine the many steps food takes in going from the dock to the dining room and point out some food-safety-related best practices. That includes receiving, cleaning, labeling/tracking, storage, prep, cooking and even bringing dishes back to the kitchen once they've left.
When it comes to distribution, what's old is new again. "Sourcing from local farmers is something that happened 100 years ago because restaurants couldn't rely on a distributor," says David Crownover, ServSafe product manager for the National Restaurant Association. "That being said, the same food safety practices are necessary regardless of where you're buying your food from or even if you're growing your own food."
First things first: Crownover recommends getting to know those local farmers and developing a trusting relationship with them, just as most foodservice operators do with larger suppliers. "It's critical to know their food safety practices," he says. Visits to the farm and learning about any audits by the USDA or other third-party inspectors can help. Larger farms in good standing fall in line with GAP (good agricultural practices) codes.
Once product comes in the door, review it for any bruises, rotting or other quality issues that could indicate unsafe food.
Bill Daily, equipment and supplies sales manager of Penn Jersey Paper, a dealer in the Philadelphia area, recommends using a scale to account for all purchased product. More advanced scales will create labels operators can use to track their inventory. Labels can include the product's origin, lot/batch numbers, date received and/or expiration date (disposal date). Daily suggests using expiration dates over received dates to avoid confusion among staff members.
"Restaurants are constantly training new people and it's easy to mistake a receiving date with an expiration date," says Daily. "They might see an Aug. 1 receiving date, but it's Aug. 4 so they think they need to throw it out." Labels also help operators track specific products in the event of a potential foodborne illness outbreak or recall.
Thermometers represent another important piece of equipment during receiving, especially for processed produce and proteins, of course. Operators use thermometers to make sure food items remained within the safe temperature zone during transportation.
Naturally — no pun intended — fruits and vegetables from smaller farms tend to come in the restaurant a little dirtier than large-scale commercial produce, which might have already gone through one or two cleaning and sanitizing stages before being loaded onto refrigerated trucks. That means it's up to the foodservice operator to take extra steps to ensure the cleanliness of its fresh foods. And even though salmonella outbreaks from food grown on local, sustainable farms are less frequent, these farms still carry that risk with birds flying overhead and the potential for droppings to contaminate plants.
"If the produce delivery is especially dirty coming straight from the farm, some operators will go back to the vendor to see if they can arrange for an initial cleaning before arriving at the facility," says Crownover. "This goes back to developing relationships."
When washing fresh produce, the water should be slightly warmer than the food items. "Produce will actually take up some of the water if it's very cold, and if the water is contaminated it will get into the inside of the produce," Crownover says. When washing cold produce use room temperature water. When washing room temperature produce, use slightly more tepid water. Also note any skin breakage, especially around stems, where potentially contaminated water could seep into the product.
With leafy greens, remove the outer layers and give them a good wash, says Crownover. Leeks and scallions are notorious for harboring sand and dirt in the inner leaves. For especially dirty or sandy greens, submerge the product in clean water before rinsing and drying it.
More operators are now experimenting with ozone technology, says Daily. This process adds oxygen to water through a sink attachment for a chemical-free sanitizer that provides an extra layer of washing protection. He recommends washing produce in smaller batches and draining and cleaning the sink when switching between vegetable types. "Never put onions and lettuce in the same bath," Daily says.
Foodservice operators should store cut produce at 41 degrees F or lower. "Some operators hold all produce at that level if they're going to clean and start prepping that day," says Crownover. Tomatoes, for example, do not require refrigeration unless they're cut, but many chefs prefer to prep this produce just before service to maintain taste and texture.
Crownover recommends storing produce in clear storage containers so it's easy to see what's in each container. Operators should discard or return boxes in which the produce arrives because these containers coming straight from a farm or packing house could potentially harbor bugs, dirt and other contaminants.
Daily has seen some operators buy special food storage boxes with colanders built in so that moisture from the washed produce drains off to prevent wilting and rotting. Ideally, a separate cooler for produce is best, but if space is limited, always store vegetables away from or on a higher level above proteins like chicken, beef and shellfish to prevent cross-contamination.
While some high-end walk-ins feature state-of-the-art temperature control monitors and alarms, simply hanging a propylene glycol thermometer in the refrigeration unit can help test temperature accuracies.
"These thermometers are similar to antifreeze in that they will replicate the temperature of the food, rather than just read the air temperature," says Daily.
Held at 41 degrees F or lower, produce has seven days' shelf life, though most
operators will use fresh produce well before that expiration date. But thermometers can more than pay for themselves. "Let's say the compressor goes down at 5 a.m. and staff don't come in until 7 a.m. And when the staff arrives the walk-in thermometer reads 47 degrees F. If you're not able to test the temperature of the food you would be ordered to throw out all produce if the health inspector would happen to come in at that moment," says Daily.
ServSafe guidelines recommend prepping anything the operation plans to serve raw — including produce for salad and shellfish — prior to prepping the proteins.
Many chefs, especially those working with smaller farms, tend to want to prep their salads and other raw foods just before service. Maintaining a clear garde manger station or other segregated space on the line can help prevent cross-contamination. Foodservice operators should thoroughly clean and sanitize all the equipment the staff uses for prepping, including cutting boards, knives, tongs, turners, containers, tables and even scales before transitioning from one product to the next.
Most operators use color-coded cutting boards for vegetables and proteins. Currently, "purple is the new black," Daily says. Use purple-colored cutting boards, knives, thermometers, turners, even storage containers when preparing menu items for customers with food allergies.
When prepping produce, work in small batches to prevent having both whole and chopped items sitting outside of the cooler too long, says Daily. Immediately refrigerate small batches of cut produce.
Once cooked, vegetables pose fewer risks than when served raw but one method of cooking vegetables, delicate seafood and naturally raised meats — sous vide — has some health departments on edge.
"Any time you have a sous vide program, you're supposed to get variance from your local health department," says Daily. This is because sous vide machines cook at temperatures lower than the recommended levels for cooking meats and seafood.
Many sous vide cookers come with built-in time and temperature controls to ensure proper cooking times for different types of food. For example, the lower the temperature (i.e. 126 degrees F), the longer the required cooking time. At least one sous vide model comes with a printer that will print labels to attach to bags so it's clear to chefs what's what. If there is a last-minute inspection, the operator has proof they're following protocol.
While not as huge a concern as cleanliness and cross-contamination prevention, operators should ensure that soiled dishes cleared from tables do not have any contact with fresh food going out to the table, or with prepped food in the back of the house.
"Ideally there will be as much segregation as possible between the outgoing and incoming flows," says Crownover.
Dishwashing stations should ideally also be set up away from produce prep areas. With space constraints, however, full segregation might not be achievable, but "operators need to be cognizant of this potential type of cross-contamination," he says.
Serving small farm fruits, vegetables and other foods is an approach many chefs and operators employ to elevate the quality and taste of their food. But that requires a few extra steps and considerations when it comes to maintaining a safe food environment. Luckily operators have many techniques and tools to use as they celebrate the food they serve.
Seeing an increase in local foodservice operations building their own on-site gardens, the Alameda County, Calif., health department drew up a list of recommendations for maintaining the safety of these growing spaces.