In an increasingly health-conscious society, more operators rely on antimicrobial technology, HACCP-based safety programs, and strict temperature control to prevent devastating outbreaks.
There's a good reason why the dentist tells you to brush your teeth every day. If you don't know it, shame on you.
But in case you forgot, brushing prevents plaque from building up in between your teeth and causing harmful bacteria to invade your gums, which can lead to disease, severe pain and lots of money spent to fix the problem.
A similar principle applies to foodservice equipment and supplies.
Equipment operators who skip the scrubbing, cleaning and sanitizing steps risk residue or biofilm buildup on food contact surfaces. Residue like that may inhibit the equipment from working properly, or force it to work even harder to compensate. Worst of all, residue can infiltrate foods and lead to harmful, even fatal, foodborne illnesses.
Such illnesses, caused by cross-contamination, improper sanitation or other unsanitary conditions in commercial and institutional kitchens, sicken nearly 76 million people a year, and 5,000 people will die, according to reports from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“That's why it's important every time you use a piece of equipment you properly clean and sanitize it,” says Nancy Culotta, vice president of retail food safety for NSF International. “Food safety programs can prevent illness and save lives.”
Proper sanitation has always been a major sticking point with NSF. But in 2006, Culotta believes E&S dealers and operators will see more innovative products and technologies geared toward sanitation, including antimicrobial technology, which, in the last few years, has become a big player in the fight against foodborne pathogens. In addition, better training of employees in the use of those technologies as well as in regulating temperatures and maintaining proper sanitation methods in general will gain even more importance amid an increasingly health-conscious society.
Antimicrobial Technology Antimicrobials have been around for decades, namely in medicine as sterilizers. But in the last few years, the technology has grown extremely popular in the foodservice industry as a way to take washing hands, dishes and countertop surfaces one step further. While antimicrobials don't completely eliminate microorganisms, they inhibit them much more than just soap, water and heat.
Antimicrobials come in powder or liquid forms, and are made from synthetic materials or natural ones like iodine and silver. Silver ions don't affect humans or animals, but are extremely toxic to single-cell organisms.
“You can treat any sort of item — plastic, fabric, rubber — with antimicrobials,” says Michael Jacobs, president of Horizon Business Group, which partners with Thompson Research Associates to make and distribute the technology. Foodservice manufacturers most commonly use antimicrobials to treat the surface of stainless-steel equipment like refrigerators or handles of products, Jacobs says.
The equipment manufacturer applies the antimicrobial powder on the surface by spraying it like a can of hairspray, or paints it on if in liquid form. After the equipment has air-dried for several hours, or baked in an industrial oven for a shorter period of time, the antimicrobials solidify on the surface to protect as much as possible against mold, mildew, fungi and other bacteria like staphylococcus, streptococcus, salmonella and E. coli.
Jacobs believes the growing demand for the technology, not just in foodservice equipment and supplies, but also in household products such as carpeting, soap, shoes and bike helmets to reduce odor, dust mites and other maladies, stems from an overall desire for better hygiene. Plus, manufacturers looking to buy antimicrobial treatments want to present their end-users with a more unique and competitive product in an industry that is becoming increasingly conscious about food safety.
“Restaurant patrons feel much more comfortable walking into a restaurant knowing that the food they're about to consume is being prepared in a kitchen that has this extra level of antimicrobial protection,” Jacobs says.
Moreover, equipment and supplies treated with antimicrobials extend product life and, in some cases, prevent fingerprints from showing up on stainless-steel surfaces, making the product better looking and easier to clean.
However, Culotta cites one major concern with antimicrobial technology. “There's a false sense of security coming from the use of antimicrobial materials in equipment,” she says. “It's like the mom who carries hand sanitizers thinking that it kills all the germs. The hand sanitizers are better than nothing, but you still have to wash your hands.”
In foodservice, employees can sometimes be lax in thoroughly cleaning and sanitizing, which is accomplished by heating equipment to a certain temperature or dipping products in chemicals. The problem happens when employees think that the antimicrobials in the equipment or countertops are doing all the work, so they don't have to.
That's why training is so important, Culotta says.
HACCP Planning The best way to ensure proper food safety, Culotta says, is for managers to keep on top of their staff. “It's up to the individual operating chain to train everyone,” Culotta says. “Everyone on the line needs to understand why they're doing a wash, rinse and sanitization. There needs to be a whole body of knowledge.”
While cleaning dishes, for instance, a staff member may hastily dip a plate in the chemical bath to sanitize it, rather than thoroughly submerge it. Or, the chemical bath might not even be strong enough.
“You may be dipping it in there, but are you sure you have the right concentration?” Culotta says.
In recent years, she says more operators have created food safety plans based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles as a way to ensure that equipment is properly sanitized and food processes in the kitchen are safe. According to Culotta, HACCP plans help broaden that “body of knowledge” by teaching employees why they are sanitizing the way they are, and why they need to maintain food-safe temperatures, rather than just noting whether those tasks have been performed.
The HACCP program is a 12-step process that involves creating a food safety team with the appropriate knowledge and expertise; drawing up full descriptions of foodservice equipment, creating flow diagrams outlining their intended usage; ensuring that staff members abide by the flow diagrams; and identifying and controlling any Critical Control Points (CCPs). Culotta explains that CCPs are procedures in a food system where loss of control might result in an unacceptable health risk; for example, cooking and cooling foods to appropriate temperatures and thoroughly sanitizing equipment.
William Fisher, vice president of marketing and communications for NSF, gives an example of a CCP as a frequently used walk-in refrigerator. If employees are going in and out of it all day, that could potentially bring down the temperature of the food inside, putting it at risk for pathogens.
“Let's say the refrigeraor is a key area of risk, then every day, six times a day, you take refrigerator temperatures,” Fisher says. Another way to control that CCP would be to attach a plastic drape over the door to prevent cold air from escaping.
After developing the HACCP plan, in-house managers certified in food safety and proper sanitation perform daily, weekly or monthly audits to verify that everyone adheres to it. Operators may also sign up for a third-party audit or register their HACCP plan with NSF. In that process, a qualified NSF auditor will conduct both an off-site and in-house review of the HACCP plan, and note any potential problems with it. Then, the operator submits the updated HACCP plan to the NSF Certification Board and, if approved, receives an NSF certificate. But the process doesn't end there — NSF auditors continue to conduct regular audits to make sure operators stick to their plans.
“A lot of food safety programs for chains are moving away more from a checklist approach to a more HACCP-based audit,” Culotta says.
For instance, while conducting a HACCP-based audit, an NSF inspector will not just walk through a kitchen and cross off on their checklist whether there is a sign reminding employees to wash their hands or if the dishwasher machine heats to its proper temperature while sanitizing dishes.
Instead, the inspector will stop to evaluate each CCP, and determine ways not only to improve the unsafe food equipment or processes, but also ways to better train the staff.
The HACCP idea was developed by Pillsbury and used in the 1960s by NASA as a way to ensure astronauts didn't get sick from bacteria-laden food when they were miles away from earth. The concept eventually made its way to the food processing and manufacturing community and then to the restaurant industry as a way of meeting food safety laws and NSF standards.
In addition to regular audits, another way managers can ensure that equipment has been thoroughly sanitized is by conducting assay tests.
During such tests, the manager takes a swab of the surface, and the sample will turn a specific color indicating if the surface is clean or not, according to Culotta. She says the tests are the most “tried and true” methods of ensuring thorough sanitation. “In the last couple of years, people are using them more readily,” she adds.
Calibration Is Key Maintaining proper temperatures while preparing and holding foods constitutes another important element of food safety. Microbes grow rapidly between the “danger zone” of 41 °F. and 140 °F., and threaten to grow even faster during cook-chill and rethermalization processes, or while food sits on a buffet line.
“There are a lot of places along the line you have to measure temperature and all of those steps are part of the HACCP program,” Fisher says.
Along those lines, Culotta adds, season temperature maintenance can be one of the most difficult aspects of food safety to regulate because it can be hard to confirm the accuracy of a thermometer reading. This year, more and more operators will work with an even wider variety of equipment, from older models to newer ones, which means thermometers also vary. That's why calibration is so important, Culotta says.
The most accurate way of calibrating equipment is to place a thermometer in a controlled temperature like ice water. If the thermometer does not read that temperature, it's off.
“If you don't calibrate, your thermometers could be all over the place and you think you're getting the right temperature, but you're not,” Culotta says.
Fisher says a number of technologies not only help regulate temperatures, but save labor, too.
For example, some operators use an electronic temperature probe while roasting meat that sets off an alarm when the meat is done so employees don't need to run back and check the temperature every 30 minutes.
Other gadgets profess to do similar things, however, Fisher says, operators should make sure those gadgets actually work. In addition to regular calibration and monitoring, choosing a certified food-safe product is the best way to ensure the accuracy of a thermometer.
Another step operators can take is bite the bullet and purchase new equipment if old units are wearing out and not up to par.
“If you have high risk-sensitive foods, raw meat, seafood, it's definitely worth the investment,” Fisher says. “If it's an older restaurant, it may be time to invest in some of the more energy-efficient equipment on the market that does a better job of maintaining temperature.”
This year, manufacturers are producing equipment that is energy-efficient and, often, more accurate, he says.
Pathogen Patrol In addition to temperature, NSF regulating fresh produce, an increasingly popular item as more and more people eat healthier, remains a challenge. Produce carries both good and bad bacteria, but there isn't an acceptable number of microbes or set standard to refer to in making sure what the consumer receives is healthy. This, Culotta says, is becoming a big challenge.
“I think there is going to be a need to determine a maximum acceptable level for certain pathogens in produce,” she says.
“You're trusting your distributors and 99.9 percent of the time you don't have a problem,” Culotta says of end-users that order the produce. But inherent in that trust is the risk of an outbreak.
Also, it is important to wash produce thoroughly, even if the supplier claims the produce has already been washed, says Patrick Pimentel, general manager of retail food safety programs for NSF.
“It says it comes triple-washed, and you wash it again, but there's no guarantee,” he says.
New Food-Safe Products Culotta wouldn't go into detail about some of the more innovative food-safe products on, or soon to be on, the market this year for fear of giving away the winners of NSF's Food Safety Leadership Awards, which will be announced in May.
But, she did offer one sneak peek at a product — a heat treatment for self-serve ice cream machines that sanitizes the machine without the need for staff to break down the equipment and clean it every day, although regular weekly cleaning is still required.
After daily use, the treatment heats the machine to 130 °F. and holds that temperature for 30 minutes to stave off pathogens. The technology addresses food safety concerns, and it saves labor.
“You don't have to have as many people on the line or have them stay for as many hours, and still know from a food safety point of view that you're covered.”
Food Safety Links
- NSF International
- National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation
- Handwashing for Life
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration
- Gateway to Government Food Safety Information
- U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service
- Partnership for Food Safety Education
- Food Safety Training and Education Alliance
- Center for Food Safety
- Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition