In the foodservice industry, everything hinges on sanitation and safety; this has been brought even more to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the CDC, nearly one in six individuals gets sick from foodborne illness because of poor food safety, with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths from foodborne diseases each year.
“A properly cleaned, sanitized and disinfected work environment is a sign of a well-run kitchen,” says Francine L. Shaw, president and master trainer, Savvy Food Safety, Inc., located in Hagerstown, Md. “A busy kitchen can become very chaotic; it is vital to stay on top of cleaning and sanitation tasks. A messy kitchen is undoubtedly at high risk of causing a foodborne illness.”
There are many variables in the back of house to consider including cross-contamination, temperature monitoring, equipment sanitation and employee safety.
When it comes to food prep, the most critical aspect of safety is handwashing.
“Dedicated handwashing stations that are clean and fully stocked with items like single-use gloves must be available for employees to minimize cross-contamination,” says Shaw. “A culture of food safety awareness is critical for employees to take handwashing seriously.”
For those not trained to properly wash their hands, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a minimum of 20 seconds, rather than the 10 to 15 seconds advised in years past. “The higher standards leave no room for error,” says Brian Kellerman, co-owner of Columbus, Ohio-based Kellerman Consulting.
Hands-free sinks have become more prevalent in the back of house, employing an electric eye, foot pedals or knee pushers. “More operators are wanting to utilize these types of hand sinks to prevent cross-contamination,” says Peter Christenson, foodservice design consultant at Christenson Consultants, headquartered in San Jose, Calif.
In addition to handwashing, gloves can be utilized for food prep and handling. “Single-use gloves must be changed frequently,” Shaw says. “These need to be changed if staff is interrupted from a task or they get soiled or torn. It is not permissible to reuse or wash single-use gloves.”
Operators should dispose of gloves, masks and other waste of this type in a trash receptacle situated away from food areas. “It’s best to have a hazardous waste bag or compartment in the kitchen for PPE as opposed to throwing it in with other waste,” Christenson recommends. “And best to keep it out of the prep and cooking areas.”
Portable or permanent pressure cleaning systems provide an additional measure of sanitation in commercial kitchens. “It may be time to re-evaluate the use of these systems,” Christenson says. “Operations generally need electric and water connections to utilize the hose and wand for cleaning floors and equipment.”
Other aspects of back-of-house safety include avoiding slips and falls, guidance on using sharp utensils like knives, and procedures for safe equipment operation.
Mitigating cross-contamination is key.
It starts with receiving products, making sure they are not damaged or compromised; then proper storage comes into play. “The goal is keeping raw products from touching ready-to-eat products,” says Clay Hosh, instructional design manager for the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe food safety and training certification program. “Cross-contamination prevention starts with receiving products all the way until the customer is dining.”
Store ingredients off the floor, either wrapped or covered, until prep time. “It should start off with cleaning workstations and equipment, being mindful where things are placed and that surfaces are cleaned and sanitized between uses,” Kellerman says. “Also, in terms of allergies and allergens, keeping these products separate to avoid cross-contamination is important.”
Safety protocols include cleaning and sanitizing dishware and utensils as well. “We’re seeing a lot more interest in high-temp machines as 160 degrees F is the magic number to kill from a biological standpoint,” Christenson says.
Properly cleaning fruits and vegetables is crucial. Even if staff will peel or skin the item, it remains essential to wash it to minimize the risk of spreading bacteria from the outside of the product to the inside as it is being prepared. “Produce should be cleaned in separate water batches, so you do not cross-contaminate, i.e., don’t wash two lettuce cases in the same water; it is possible to contaminate the second batch of lettuce if the first case was tainted and you use the same water,” Shaw explains. “You must also clean and sanitize the produce sink between batches.”
Correctly label food items and rotate stock using the FIFO (First In, First Out) rotation method; doing this will assure depletion of the oldest inventory first. “Mislabeled products can cause foodborne illnesses and allergic reactions, including death,” Shaw says.
Storage and Temperature Control
Keeping hot food hot and cold food cold represents one of the hallmarks of food safety. To stay out of the danger zone, keep cold products at 41 degrees F or lower, while hot food should be kept at 135 degrees F or higher. “That is the major goal and should start when product is received,” Kellerman says. “The obligation is to maintain correct temperatures until you’re at the point where product is being cooked. That’s one of the major critical control points in preventing foodborne illness.”
Calibrate thermometers daily to ensure accurate product temps when staff check the food. “Employees can forget to calibrate thermometers regularly, so it is a good idea to keep a calibration log,” Shaw says.
In addition to cooking, proper cooling must be achieved to combat bacteria. “It’s important to ensure food is brought down to the right temperature as quickly as possible,” Kellerman says. “If there is a 5-gallon stockpot of meat sauce, some people think this can be cooled in a walk-in. However, you can come back in five or six hours and the product that started at 135 degrees F or higher may only be at room temperature; this is when pathogens grow.”
Holding hot product at correct temperatures also plays a critical role in maintaining a food-safe environment. “We call it the flow of food, or how it flows through an operation,” Kellerman explains. “There are critical points during the flow of food where operators have opportunities to put checks in place to make sure products are at proper temperatures. Managerial control is key to making sure employees are doing what’s necessary at all critical points.”
Shaw recommends only pulling a small amount of food from the cooler at a time when prepping so items do not sit in the temperature danger zone of between 41 degrees F and 135 degrees F for an excessive period, risking time and temperature abuse. “If it’s not stored at proper temperatures, food will not be safe to eat; this is impossible to verify without an adequately calibrated thermometer,” Shaw says. “This is true of both hot and cold food items. Foods must also be chilled, cooked and reheated adequately to keep them safe.”
Sanitation and safety protocols are only as good as the training received by employees to put these practices into action. For those new to the industry or returning after a long absence, it is vital to become reacquainted with an operation’s program.
“Food safety issues come up due to lack of management or proper involvement in the business,” Kellerman says. “Every food business has something go wrong every day because nothing is perfect, but serious issues occur when management is not involved enough in the day-to-day operations.”
Ensuring staff follow the proper food-safety-related steps takes active leadership, with management on the line and production floor constantly walking around, surveying the scene, and writing things down as they go. Being face-to-face with staff plays a critical role in any food safety initiative.