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Using Foodservice Equipment to Mitigate Risk to People

While much of the focus today centers on healthy eating for consumers, protecting foodservice workers’ health should be an important consideration for operators across all industry segments. 

Here foodservice risk management specialist Tom Johnson shares a few suggestions to mitigate the risk in commercial kitchen environments.

Tom Johnson, a statistician, second-generation independent manufacturer’s rep, principal at Johnson Associates, and founder of Johnson Risk Services, devotes his consultancy to mitigating risk in foodservice environments. An immune-compromised survivor of a major foodborne illness, Johnson focuses on food safety, but he also specializes in risk to property, and to people.

Recent research shed more light on the serious health risks foodservice workers face in kitchens where there is a lot of open flame, high-temperature cooking, grease and chemicals. Exposure to chemicals has also become an area of concern in foodservice environments.

Johnson, who helped develop the Manufacturers Agents Association for the Foodservice Industry’s technology committee, makes it his mission to apply state-of-the-art technology to reduce risk to people in foodservice environments. Here are a few ways commercial kitchens of the future can do so.

Low-Temperature Cooking

Charred foods have become known to carry carcinogens when ingested, but fumes from the cooking process itself can also cause long-term damage.

“Line cooks and chefs are shown to have a greater incidence of cancer than the general population,” says Johnson, who learned more about this while assisting with research for the CDC investigating this health concern. “We know women in China have a greater incidence of cancer than the men, even though men smoke more and the reason, we found, is because the women do all the cooking. People who live downwind from certain foodservice operations that exhaust fumes from high-temperature cooking of animal proteins also face these risks.”

One must ask, without getting too technical, how do these carcinogens develop? “Broilers, charbroilers, even rotisseries and drawer broilers, and other cooking equipment using flames or radiant temperatures at 1,800 degrees F or above create certain combustions when cooking animal proteins and even certain oils,” says Johnson, noting there’s risks even with heating peanut oil on a wok or with vegetables when mixed with canola or corn oils and cooked at high temperatures. “The process of charring causes a rapid chemical reaction and the release of undesirable chemicals that are not safe to inhale,” he says.

Cooking for longer periods at lower temperatures can help mitigate charring. “Even if you cook a pizza in a 500 degree F oven as long as the surface area of the pizza itself doesn’t go above 212 degrees F when it would release gasses, it’s considered safer,” Johnson says. “Once the water evaporates, the crust will begin to release its sugar and starches and become nicely caramelized, but if you continue to apply heat, eventually you’re going to combust those solids and that’s when toxins are produced.”

Cooking Without Flames

Avoiding flames can also help reduce the risk of inhaling harmful fumes – both from combustion (searing) and from carbon monoxide exposure. “I’ve heard reports of cooking staff who complain of headaches because they’re getting a low dose of carbon monoxide every day from standing in front of flames,” Johnson says. The other benefit of flameless cooking is that it results in less of a need for fire suppression systems or even hoods.

Sous vide focuses on flameless, slower, lower temperature cooking, which mitigates some of these risks. This type of water bath cooking also helps proteins retain their natural moisture and flavor for a higher end yield, Johnson notes.

Combi ovens may not use flames to cook, but they can reach high temperatures. Still, they do a better job of capturing exhaust, Johnson points out. Induction cooking greatly reduces risk of fire and health hazards because they heat food indirectly. “You want as little to no grease in your kitchen as possible,” says Johnson speaking from a fire hazard and heath-hazard standpoint.

Multiple Hurdle Cooking

“By combining different technologies we reduce risk through multiple hurdles, or interventions that work in sequence to reduce risk to the operation and its people,” says Johnson.

For example, a combination of pasteurization and rapid-cook ovens can prevent dangerous charring to foods. At least one advanced blast chiller model features this pasteurization cycle. “You could take a large load of chicken or raw hamburger and pasteurize them so the core reaches 160 degrees F and the pathogens are killed off,” Johnson says. “Then, when you reach the refrigeration stage the fat actually congeals on the product so there is less moisture loss. When you go to heat the product back up you can use a rapid cook oven to create that slightly caramelized finish.”

Rapid cook ovens do involve a combustion process, but the vapors break down into safe oxygen and H20 gasses, Johnson says. Non-commercial and institutional operators, particularly healthcare facilities, have experimented the most with this type of multiple hurdle cooking process to maximize flavor and yield without the health risks to their customers that charred foods present.

Chemical Exposure Reduction

While high-temperature cooking poses the most risk to cooks who inhale the fumes and consumers who ingest the food, chemical exposure also introduces risks in a foodservice operation. Johnson points to a new technology that uses water, salt and electricity in dishwashers to sanitize without the use of chemicals. Believe it or not, there have been scary incidents when cook staff mistook chemicals for say, salt or sugar.

“The excessive use of chemicals today have been found to be responsible for a lot of adverse health effects, and that includes pesticides, sanitizers and other ‘economic poisons’ as they’re known,” Johnson says.

All foodservice operations by law must reduce risk to their customers through food safety measures and fire suppression systems. But they’re beginning to have more of a social and moral responsibility to reduce risk to their staff members, too. Thinking outside the box when it comes to equipment selection can help mitigate these risks – and costs.