For microbiologist Jeff Kornacki, PhD, danger lurks around the corner in every restaurant and supermarket he visits. The food safety consultant admits that he eats at fast food restaurants, but with some trepidation. And as much as he tries to avoid looking at the kitchen as he waits in line, he says he can’t help himself. “I’ve seen people making sandwiches reach into one set of ingredients and then another—olives, lettuce, pickles, and they’re handling it all,” says the head of Kornacki Microbiology Solutions Inc. in McFarland, Wis. “They have plastic over their hands and are wiping off counters with a wet cloth that has been around all morning. And if they don’t change their gloves, they’ve transferred a vast population of microbes from the cloth onto the food.”
And that’s just one link in the chain of people from farmers to food servers who potentially could contaminate food. Most of the foodborne illnesses experienced today are preventable if farmers, chefs, food processors, cooks, and servers focus on safety, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer group.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it. The FDA recently proposed two major rules for the Act regarding preventive controls in human food and produce safety. While the Act focuses on farms and processors, its benefit filters down to restaurants and supermarkets in the form of potentially improving the safety of meat and other foodstuffs moving through the food chain, says Sarah Klein, senior staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Food Safety Program. Other standards also are being upgraded, including the American National Standard for Bakery Equipment Sanitation Requirements (see sidebar).
Sanitation in Food
There are three main types of hazards or contaminants that can cause unsafe food: Biological, chemical, and physical. Biological includes microorganisms; chemical includes cleaning solvents and pest control; and physical means hair, dirt, or other matter.
In our research, we’ve come up with five frequently mentioned sanitation tips to prevent foodborne illnesses in food service and retail businesses. They are:
- Proper personal hygiene, including frequent hand and arm washing and covering cuts;
- Proper cleaning and sanitizing of all food contact surfaces and utensils;
- Proper cleaning and sanitizing of food equipment;
- Good basic housekeeping and maintenance; and
- Food storage for the proper time and at safe temperatures.
Proper employee education and training, as well as monitoring and record-keeping by management of clean and sanitation tasks, also are important, according to Joshua Katz, PhD, new director of the Food Marketing Institute’s Food Safety Programs in Arlington, Va.
But while procedures and training can be put in place, their effectiveness depends on how they are enforced. One way is to apply public pressure to those with cleanliness issues, says Klein. “The Center for Science in the Public Interest makes the results of the health department inspections more public. We believe the transparency of those results…will serve as an incentive.”
Klein says restaurants need to bear some responsibility for the periodic training of employees and oversight. “They need to ensure materials that explain the responsibilities of employees are available to them in multiple languages, English, Spanish, Chinese, and that there are visual cues, such as hand washing signs above the wash sink.” Some chains, such as Clyde’s Restaurant Group, have periodic hand-washing competitions as a built-in incentive for cleanliness, she says. One company that is known for its sanitation controls is McDonald’s, adds Klein. “Those types of entities are keeping control of their brand.”