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Focusing on Food Safety

The calendar may be rolling over to fall from summer, but the food safety season never ends for the foodservice industry. This article takes a look at some developments in this area offers a few tips as to how operators and other foodservice professionals can help maintain food-safe environments.

The calendar may tell us it's time to transition to fall from summer and make the appropriate seasonal wardrobe adjustments. Many foodservice operators are making a similar transition, updating their menus to include more fall friendly items that reflect the seasonal fruits and vegetables available. Of course, one aspect of foodservice that never goes out of season is food safety. That point was driven home last month when a massive salmonella outbreak caused by more than a half-billion tainted shell eggs, not only scared consumers from buying eggs at their local grocery stores, but it also put the entire restaurant and foodservice community at bay, concerned about being a part of the growing problem.

Every year, it would seem, there is at least one foodborne illness outbreak of note – from e. Coli-tainted spinach and peanut butter, salmonella-tainted raw tomatoes, to a host of other produce and processed products. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that 142,000 Americans are sickened each year by egg-borne salmonella, typically as a result of caged animals that lay their eggs too close in proximity to their own and other animal feces. According to the Center for Food Safety and Center for Science in the Public Interest, California was among the first of a few states to require egg producers to become cage-free by 2015.

The latest egg recall came on the heels of a food safety bill proposal that has been gaining ground in Congress. The Food Safety Enhancement Act (H.R.2749) was passed by the House of Representatives in 2009, but currently resides in the Senate's hands. If passed, the bill would allow the FDA to have stronger regulatory powers over food suppliers in order to better prevent foodborne illness outbreaks and ensure better food safety throughout the national food supply chain, from seed to farm to distributor to restaurant and consumer. Specifically, the bill calls for increased, more frequent FDA inspections of food processing plants, and it would allow the FDA to enact nationwide recalls of certain foods as soon as small outbreaks have occurred. The bill would also allow the FDA to shutter plants or impose penalties in the case of evidence pointing toward contamination. Tracing the source of foods seems to be the most pertinent of issues when it comes to food safety as of late.

Talk of a universal RFID tagging system for each and every foodservice product has been circulating in recent years, but this system has posed obvious problems for the fresh food industry. For example, tagging cases of tomatoes or bags of lettuce could create more traceability when it comes to produce, according to many foodservice experts. And, many restaurants and foodservice operators have turned to local, small family farms to source some of their product because they can literally see where their food comes from and better guarantee its safety.

Still, with the economic climate very fragile, few foodservice operators can withstand any food safety-induced setbacks. While Congress continues to work toward a consensus regarding federal food safety regulations, foodservice operators from all segments should try to take food safety matters in their own hands to ensure the long-term viability of their business.

Foodservice operators and their supply chain partners can take a few obvious steps to do accomplish this, such as:

  • Review HACCP procedures.
  • Ensure food safety training for both managers and all staff members is up to date, and if not, enroll staff in programs like ServSafe programs.
  • Hold regular staff meetings to discuss the importance of food safety.
  • Post signs reminding staff to check temperatures, wash their hands and use the correct, color-coded chopping boards for their prep assignments to ensure separation of raw meat and fresh produce.
  • Check the ServSafe website for more tips on food safety training.

In addition, the United Fresh Produce Association offers a series of regular training programs in produce inspection as a way for foodservice operators to stop tainted fresh food at the delivery door.

The association's program provides hands-on instruction from USDA experts to anyone involved in the produce supply chain, from grower to retailer to foodservice operator. Class participants learn how to become more proficient and knowledgeable about quality-control standards, inspection grading, USDA produce procedures and requirements, and more.

Also, proper care and use of each piece of foodservice equipment can contribute to creating food safe environment. When purchasing a piece of equipment or training employees how to use an item, it is important to spell out the food safety attributes. Doing so helps everyone involved understand how their actions and the specific pieces of equipment support the operation's food safety plans.

What follows is an overview of three product categories gathering renewed attention when it comes to food safety.

Egg Pasteurizers: On-premise egg pasteurizing machines are capable of eliminating salmonella and avian flu in shell eggs. Some of these units can also cook eggs to soft, medium, hard and Asian-style doneness and store them at the correct consumption temperature for a period of time.

Ozone Technology: Products in this category use a process that can extract naturally-occurring ozone for use in vegetable and fresh produce washes, and even as cleaning solutions for kitchen countertops and supplies to eliminate bacteria and other harmful microbes that can lead to food contamination and foodborne illnesses.

Thermometers: Foodservice operators should use professional-grade thermometers that provide accurate temperatures for cooked meats and proteins to ensure food-safe temperatures. Newer, more technologically advanced units feature HAACP check lights and icons that help foodservice staff adhere to food safety protocol.

Ice Handling Systems: Use scooping systems that reduce the risk of cross contamination as foodservice staff transport ice between the machine and points of use. Dishwasher-safe scoopers allow for easier, more effective cleaning.