While the need to hold food at the proper temperature for the appropriate amount of time is critical, it is far from the only element that contributes to a foodservice operator’s ability to create and maintain a food safe environment.

In fact, foodservice operators need to employ proper cleaning and sanitation practices to help ensure food remains safe from the point of delivery until staff serve it to customers.

To help explore the role of sanitation in maintaining a food safe environment, FE&S spoke with Donna Duberg, assistant professor of clinical laboratory science at Saint Louis University and a leading hygiene expert. Duberg is also a member of the Tork Green Hygiene Council, a body created by SCA Tissue to promote sanitary practices in foodservice and other operations.

FE&S: Sanitation and preventing foodborne illness go hand in hand, don’t they?

DD: Sanitation goes a long way toward making sure that everyone and everything that comes in contact with the food product is not adding bacteria from the time it comes into the facility until staff serve it to customers. So it takes the pressure off having to hold product at the right temperature because there is not as much bacteria. When food comes in the back door that is the dirtiest it should be there. And as it moves through the process it should become cleaner.

FE&S: So what’s the difference between cleaning and sanitizing?

DD: Cleaning is wiping off the visible dirt. Sanitizing is the amount of time the chemical needs to spend on the surface to effectively kill bacteria. And the longer the chemical stays untouched on the surface the closer you are getting to disinfecting. Whether it is important to clean or sanitize depends on the activity that takes with that equipment and what bacteria you think is present. If you are breaking down produce, sanitizing might be good enough. If you are prepping raw meat you might want to disinfect.

FE&S: What are the keys to maintaining a sanitary kitchen environment?

DD: Foodservice operators should have a training program that teaches employees to follow certain practices and use specific tools — gloves, wipes, chemicals — when doing so. But the message needs to go beyond the training. Put up a job aid that reminds them what they are doing and why. By the sinks, you put up that handwashing protocol and make sure the area is properly stocked with soap, towels, etc. Make the job aids fun, seasonal, etc. to keep it top of mind.

FE&S: What’s one good example of a way to ensure staff use proper sanitation methods?

DD: Use different colored wipers. Any cloth used where patrons can see you working should be a white wipe. If it looks the least bit dirty, toss it away or clean it. Staff should use red wipers when sanitizing areas where meat and seafood are prepared and green for produce prep areas. Blue is good for general back of the house cleaning. And if you are cleaning the floor, use a squirt bottle.

Color coding them allows you to immediately see if someone has the wrong wiper. And you can even tie cleaners to this process. For example, vinegar and water are good for areas like salad bars that need to be wiped down frequently.

FE&S: What are some indicators that an operation may not be as sanitary as it should be?

DD: Odor. You want the most pleasant odor possible. That means eliminating anything that’s unsanitary and the scenting of your cleaners. In fact, cleaning solutions should be lightly scented and the restaurant should be visibly clean. Place a hand sanitizer at the customers’ point of entry. Many people are used to seeing this now and it is a service to them. Also, wrap silverware and other service items when appropriate and make sure that staff members wear clean aprons and clothes.

FE&S: How do foodservice operators help ensure their training efforts have the desired impact?

DD: Part of training and education needs to be why you are doing it. “Why” is the motivator and it is what gets people to comply. You have to explain to them the consequences of noncompliance, too. You are not teaching them anything they should not be doing at home. Hopefully, they believe it and will do it because it is the right thing to do.

And then you have to watch them. If someone is non-compliant, approach them to point out what should have happened in a polite way but also let them know what happens due to noncompliance.

FE&S: Health inspections are a key indicator of how well an operation addresses food safety issues, right?

DD: We should not be doing the minimum when it comes to the standards. When the inspector comes, you should be really proud of what you are doing. For example, if you have an area where you can’t have a hand sink with soap and water you should have hand sanitizer there. Foodservice operators should have employees that are responsible for certain areas of food safety and have them talk with the inspector. Taking steps like that builds pride in the employees that you are not just at minimum standards.

FE&S: How do sanitation efforts help an operator pass health inspections?

DD: From the moment you open the door the restaurant has to smell good. And we don’t need to have harsh chemicals to sanitize. A green cleaner with a nice, light scent will do the job. When I walk in to a bathroom and smell something syrupy sweet I think they are trying to hide something.

If your cleaning schedule is posted and your cleaning protocol is in your restaurant management book the inspector will know that you believe in cleaning and sanitizing. Then take the inspector around the restaurant to show them what you have done and why you have done it. 

FE&S: But most foodservice professionals see health inspections as adversarial. Is that not the case?

DD: Inspections are not supposed to be punitive. They are supposed to be protective. So showing them you are doing the right thing and why you are doing it will go a long way toward improving their confidence level. And as you build a relationship with your health inspector they might give you a heads up on issues coming up.