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Food Safety for Local Food

Sourcing locally grown ingredients is a trend that many foodservice operators now embrace. But when using smaller providers foodservice operators will need to take into account how they receive, store and prep ingredients to ensure they run a food-safe business. This article explores a variety of considerations and best practices operators should weigh when sourcing locally produced ingredients.

Local food — the butter lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, sweet carrots and more that come from small family farms less than 50 miles away — often arrives at a restaurant's back door pretty dirty. In some cases, very dirty, and still full of bugs.

Sound appetizing? Truth is, local food coming straight from the farm is fresher, providing a just-picked appeal, but it has also skipped the washing, sanitizing and packaging stage that most commercial produce goes through before hitting refrigerated trucks. That means it is up to the foodservice operator to take care of those steps to ensure the safety of its freshest ingredients. And now that we're coming upon the harvest season in the heat of the summer, food safety becomes even more important.

How does working with local foods impact kitchen design and equipment needs? Greg Christian, sustainable foodservice guru and founder/CEO of Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners, and Simon Stojanovic, executive chef of Altamare and the soon-to-open TIKL Raw Bar & Grill in Miami, explain.

Dressed-Up Deliveries

To ensure staff handles produce safely from the moment the product hits the back door, they should be ready to receive deliveries from smaller farmers just as if they were receiving the same produce from the bigger distributors, according to Christian. "Operators should scale their produce unless they're buying by the bunch," he says. Reason is, by showing you mean business with a formal receiving process, "the smaller guys will take you seriously."

A more stringent receiving platform will have a trickledown effect on the way the produce is treated from harvest to transport to the operator, Christian adds. Taking temperatures at the door is another signal to the farmer or, in many cases, smaller distributor, that the produce should be adequately chilled for safe consumption by larger groups. This is especially important in school and healthcare foodservice where the customer base is high-risk, he says.

"Ask them how they are tracking their cold chain," Christian says. "After the raspberries were picked when did they hit below 40 degrees F? Can you prove they stayed below 40 degrees F like the big companies? Was the truck refrigerated? Though the big companies can hit a button and know the temperature of the truck immediately, smaller distributors should at least have their temperatures handwritten on a clipboard."

Even though customers don't get sick from strawberries, per se, warm strawberries can harbor salmonella and other foodborne illnesses that can transfer to the plate. "Maintaining temperature is a big deal," Christian says.

It's also becoming more important for farmers to be good agricultural practices (GAP) certified, particularly if they want to sell product in grocery stores, Christian says.

According to a report produced by North Carolina State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, "increased concerns about foodborne illness from fresh produce have motivated many growers to voluntarily adopt good agricultural practices (GAPs). GAPs help reduce microbial contamination on their farms and improve food safety systems...third-party GAP certification offers a way for growers to let buyers know that they follow appropriate food safety practices on their farms."

While still voluntary, third-party GAP certification could become mandated by law in the near future as food safety legislation strengthens. Regardless, operators who want to better ensure the safety of their produce, even from local, small farms, should look for farmers with the certification, or at least ones who follow those best practices.

Cleaning and Sanitizing

While operators can encourage better food-safety standards from farmers, they need to be in control of their own systems within their kitchen as well.

Properly cleaning the produce when it comes in is the first step, Christian says. "In general, local produce is way dirtier than conventional produce," he says. "You need more water and space for the produce to be immersed — not set under running water because that leads to waste. That means you either need a bigger sink or change the water more often."

Stojanovic immerses his produce in an ice bath to not only clean but also freshen and crisp up the local farm products he receives, from lettuce and other greens to carrots and heirloom tomatoes. Because the hydroponic tomatoes and pod-based vegetables come in with their bulb attached, the bulb needs to be removed and cleaned properly as well.

"Some farms are organic and some are not but still follow organic methods," Stojanovic says, noting that means no pesticides. Either way, both come with more dirt and the occasional bug and require the same amount of cleaning and washing.

Salad spinners — the larger size ones — are helpful for lettuce, says Christian. "Staff need to be taught how to wash lettuce — not put too much in the spinner at one time, and they need to wash the lettuce two or three times otherwise they will have dirty or sandy food," he adds.

Refrigeration and Storage

Because most broadline distributors provide their lettuce in pre-washed, pre-packed form, operators need to figure out how to handle the bulk, unpackaged produce they often receive from smaller farms. For example, after washing the lettuce, "think about where that clean lettuce is going to go," Christian says. "I often encourage my clients to use rolling carts with sheet pans or tubs that can go from the spinner to the cooler right away."

Christian also encourages operators to work with their farmers to use reusable, more permanent containers with the farm's name written on them versus cardboard boxes that get tossed into the trash following the delivery. Cardboard also has a tendency to harbor more bugs, and keeping a system like this will ensure better organization of the delicate farm-to-table produce in the walk-in coolers.

"We definitely have more cooler space on hand for local produce," Stojanovic says, noting that in addition to produce, TIKL also receives eggs and dairy from a nearby farm. "I order 20 cases of greens at a time from one farm so I need storage space for all that. We keep boxes stacked to the ceiling and it's quite a large cooler."

Also, Stojanovic adds, in the walk-in, "I like to keep all the washed and prepped produce in one area, the cooked vegetables and other products in another area, and dairy separate from both."

Seafood from nearby fisheries also gets its own space once staff properly clean it. "I have an 80-gallon cooler with ice and fish in it and slide that underneath the shelves in the cooler so it doesn't smell," Stojanovic says.

Safe Preparation

Stojanovic sources all of his fish whole, butchering and filleting everything in house. As a result, the kitchen includes extra prep space and plenty of nearby sink stations. "With our local grouper we use the whole thing. We take the wings and cheeks off for dishes and use the fins and bones for stock," he says. "When I helped with the designing of the kitchen, I built in room for a prep bench where three or four cooks can work at a time with a wash basin and water access and ice to wash everything. I also positioned the prep table toward the back of the kitchen, away from the heat and grease of the line, and right by the cooler door."

Local produce tends to come in with more roughage attached. "Beets, celery and carrots will often come with their tops attached, and onions aren't as tightly picked," Christian says. As a result, the kitchen has to be able to either properly clean and store the tops for other uses, or design space for a compost bin. Staff can cool and store other scraps for stocks and soups.

Food processors can also be a kitchen's best friend when it comes to local produce, Christian says, noting that schools and other institutions lacking knives and knife skills certainly benefit from this vegetable prep equipment.

That said, with schools moving back to made-from-scratch cooking to improve the healthfulness of their menus, the intersections with farm-fresh produce come into play. In the heavy equipment arena, that might mean going from just two ovens to stovetops, steamers and more to cook this fresh produce.

With local food sourcing becoming more prevalent throughout the foodservice industry, kitchens could start to look quite different than in years past. Some resemble mini produce processing plants. Prep space, refrigeration and designing a space to properly handle deliveries, cleaning and storing when working with these types of foods will become increasingly important as a result.