The last year and a half put the spotlight on food safety and sanitation like never before. Even though it was quickly discovered surfaces were not a COVID-19 spreader, the pandemic made everyone hyperaware of cleanliness. Yet cleaning and sanitation represent but one part of any comprehensive food safety program.
“Coming out of COVID, most everyone is more mindful of hygienic practices than they were before and paying attention to the small things operators took for granted in the first place,” says Kevin Roberts, professor and interim department head co-director, The Center for Food Safety in Child Nutrition Programs, Department of Hospitality Management at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.
Setting COVID-19 aside, food safety remains a key element in any restaurant’s ability to live up to its brand promise. “Food safety is a nonnegotiable that should be a part of an operation’s culture,” says Carlos Menes, senior manager, food safety, Sodexo, Gaithersburg, Md.
Food safety and menu engineering go hand in hand, adds Russ Benson, founder/CEO of DayOne Hospitality Consulting. “A menu has to be designed in such a way so as not to provoke food safety risks,” he says. “This includes looking at the way ingredients are cross-utilized and how equipment weaves into the menu.”
The evolution of food safety comes down to the industry looking at the root causes of foodborne illness and determining how to prevent it by using a combination of tried-and-true methods as well as new technologies.
Following Basic Protocol
Food safety programs include standard components that vary little from one foodservice operation to the next. “It comes down to safe food handling, including temperature monitoring and avoiding cross-contamination,” says Larry Lynch, vice president for Science and Industry at the National Restaurant Association, based in Washington, D.C. “Also, proper cleaning and sanitizing with an awareness of chemical compounds.”
The Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code, created to safeguard public health, provides a uniform system of provisions that address the safety and protection of food. Among the comprehensive topics covered are the time and temperature requirements for cooking, holding, heating and chilling food safely.
Foodservice operators can use data logger technology and chart recorders to document temperatures, while stickers or color-coded dots for the first in, first out (FIFO) method of food storage can help verify culinary staff rotate food properly to ensure cooks do not use out-of-date ingredients. To ensure proper temperature monitoring, operators must regularly calibrate thermometers, probes and other devices. Menes recommends recalibrating thermometers once a day.
Cross-contamination represents one of the biggest food safety-related issues. Preventing cross-contamination starts with allowing sufficient separation between raw and ready-to-eat food and extends to avoiding cross contact between allergens. This begins in the back of the house, including storage areas, prep areas and the cookline, and continues all the way to the table.
Employee hygiene compliance also plays a critical role in maintaining a food-safe environment. It’s crucial for management to reinforce handwashing procedures first and foremost. This includes training on the proper technique and frequency.
There also have been advancements in handwashing. “Devices that include badges or chips can register employees, then monitor and record their handwashing time,” Menes says.
In addition, foodservice operators should train staff on how to properly wear personal protective equipment. This includes disposable gloves. How often staff should replace disposable gloves will depend greatly on the task at hand. But a general rule of thumb calls for the replacing of disposable gloves every two to four hours, sooner in the event of torn or soiled gloves. And culinary staff should change gloves when changing tasks.
Glove use can be problematic if employees do not follow handwashing protocol during use. “Many use gloves and don’t think they have to wash their hands,” Roberts says. “Handwashing eliminates bacteria, which grows on hands during glove use since this creates a moist environment. Employees need to wash their hands between switching gloves.”
Oversights and missteps can also happen when staff is rushed, unprepared and forced to handle challenges on the fly. One easy-to-overlook area is temperature monitoring of food that’s out for delivery or being stored in a separate area for pickup. “It’s the nature of delivery and preordering, where food is being held on a shelf or cubby that is not temperature regulated,” says Karen Malody, owner, Culinary Options, a Portland, Ore.-based consulting firm. “Short of having warmers or refrigerated trucks, there is no guarantee that food, from the time it leaves the kitchen to when it is delivered or picked up, has not stayed above 140 degrees F for the entire journey. With so much food being consumed outside dining rooms today, I believe this is going to become a mounting crisis.”
Another common misstep is inappropriate food chilling. According to Malody, this applies to any food that has been cooked or heated. The initial two-hour cool is the most critical time period since food is passing through the temperature range that supports the most rapid microorganism growth. If food has not reached 70 degrees F within 2 hours, it must be reheated to 165 degrees F for 15 seconds and then cooled again or thrown away.
“The most common mistake, if an operator does not have a blast chiller/freezer, is trying to chill too much hot food in improper containers, such as soup or sauce in a deep pan,” Malody explains. “The rules clearly state that all food meant to be chilled properly must be no deeper 2 inches. You can imagine how long it would take a deep pot of soup to chill that is simply placed in a walk-in cooler. In addition to the havoc cooling food in this manner wreaks on the way in, food rarely chills properly unless it is in a very shallow pan and stirred often. And most busy kitchen prep cooks do not reenter the walk-in to stir hot food.”
The best practice for chilling food in an ice bath, Malody says, is to first fill the sink or a large bowl with ice and cold water and place the containers in the ice bath. The container should be level with the ice. Staff should stir the food every 10 to 15 minutes to distribute heat to the cold areas so the food cools evenly. As the ice melts, staff should drain the water a bit and add more ice. During this time, they should monitor food temperatures via a thermometer.
“The ice cubes must be replaced as they melt or you are simply heating the water,” Malody explains, adding that using ice wands in place of actual ice can be tricky. “First of all, if the wand is not impeccably sanitized, an operator is inviting cross-contamination when the wand enters the food being chilled. These are made of sturdy food-grade plastic, meaning they can interact with hot food without melting or releasing any harmful chemicals. However, if the ice wand is not proportionately sized for the dish and depth of the food being chilled, it will not cool fast enough.” So long as food reaches 41 degrees F within 2 hours, it is safe to store in the fridge or freezer. The less deep and dense the product is in a container, the faster it will cool.
Other issues caused by inadequate cold storage include raw food stored above ready-to-eat items or washed produce, says Menes. Cleaning and sanitizing equipment may seem simple, but it’s important to mind the details here, too. “Not having the proper concentration of sanitizer in a bucket or spray bottle is common,” he says.
The current labor crisis has put even more emphasis on the need for extensive back-of-the-house training. “Training has been an issue for a long time, but with the labor shortage, it is even more critical because the skill set is inconsistent,” Benson says. “I’ve learned people want to be trained, educated, taught and led; they want to do the right thing, and now is the time to educate and reeducate staff.” He adds that ideally, it would be great if the entire industry were ServSafe certified, but at minimum, food handler certification should be required.
The tight labor market and overworked staff can precipitate a lack of sanitation training, including learning the principles of proper food handling. “Noncommercial operators are held to more rigid standards and exercise HACCP principles in the kitchen,” Malody says.
Malody says that this is because of the strict guidelines and requirements that must be met due to the liability noncommercial operators have to their employees, regardless of the sector — business and industry, college and university, senior living or healthcare. “[Noncommercial] operators are held to strict key performance indicators (KPIs) that inevitably include food safety and sanitation,” she explains. “Though restaurants are just as vulnerable if a foodborne illness outbreak occurs as their noncommercial counterparts, operators who are serving a company’s employees at the rate of thousands per day cannot take chances. As a result of these strict guidelines in all contractual cases, the operators have developed stringent protocols for food safety standards. And it is the rare noncommercial operation that does not have a blast chiller/freezer — or several.”
Adds Malody, “If staff is put through classes on sanitation and management inspects what they’re doing on a daily and weekly basis, many food safety issues can be circumvented.”
Fortunately, with today’s technology, it is easier to monitor safety protocols across a variety of areas, including food storage, prep and cooking, to stay on track. “Many potential issues have been [addressed with automated systems] and streamlined, but the fact that so few operations are using these is unfortunate,” Malody says.
Resetting a brand with back-to-basics food safety training can ensure everyone stays on the same page. “It’s something that should be done at least every two years,” says Jessica Williams, founder and CEO of consultancy Food Forward Thinking LLC, Louisville, Ky. “Make sure safety standards are known by everyone in the organization and that these are kept up to date using language that is relevant company wide.”