Hand Hygiene’s Critical Role in Food Safety

© zhitkov - Fotolia.com

Image Credit: © zhitkov – Fotolia.com

When we talk about food safety, numerous factors that impact the overall safety of our food come to mind. For some, it could be making sure the food is prepared to and served at the right temperature, and for others it is ensuring that produce is washed properly. Yet, how many of us think about the importance of hand hygiene?

Practicing Good Hand Hygiene

The practice of good hand hygiene—washing with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer—is the first step that needs to be taken to ensure the safety of food. Whether it takes place on the farm where the food is being grown or in the kitchen (at home or in a restaurant), hand hygiene is vital to preventing food from becoming contaminated.

Bugs of Concern

According to research conducted by Charles P. Gerba, PhD, from the University of Arizona, more than 80 percent of illnesses can be transmitted by the hands. This includes potentially harmful bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Shigella, Campylobacter, and viruses like norovirus, which all pose a serious threat to public health.

Oftentimes, restaurant workers do not realize the germs from items such as raw meat can be on the gloves they are wearing. They then unknowingly contaminate their hands when they remove the gloves and the microorganisms are then transferred to the food that is about to be served to restaurant patrons. The best way to remove the bacteria from a food worker’s hands is through practicing good hand hygiene.

How Hand Hygiene Products Work

When people think about hand hygiene, they typically think about handwashing with soap and water. Anti-bacterial soaps, which are common in the food service industry, contain ingredients designed to kill germs on the skin, adding an extra level of protection from microbial contamination.

While handwashing with soap and water is a common practice among restaurant workers, alcohol-based hand sanitizers also provide food handlers with convenient hygiene when soap and water are not readily available. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can also be used as part of an overall hand hygiene regimen following handwashing. In fact, a study showed that using a hand hygiene regimen, which included handwashing followed by hand sanitizer, was more effective at reducing transient microorganisms on hands soiled with chicken broth and ground beef than handwashing alone. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are effective antimicrobials that reduce the spread of foodborne disease-causing microorganisms on the skin.

Soap and hand sanitizer dispensers also play a key role in reducing the spread of illness-causing germs. For example, touch-free dispensers allow for portion-controlled dispensing and easy access to hand hygiene products. Another reason to move towards touch-free dispensers is that the use of these dispensers has been shown to improve compliance rates over manual dispensers because these touch-free dispensers are typically used more often than manual dispensers. However, there is one system to avoid: an open, refillable bulk soap dispenser.

Open, refillable bulk soap dispensers are refilled by pouring soap into an open, partially filled reservoir. Three published studies mentioned below revealed potential human health risks for those who wash their hands with these dispensers. The studies found that these types of dispensers are rarely cleaned, leading to exposure to fecal contamination.

  • A study published in the March 2011 Journal of Environmental Health finds 25 percent of open, refillable bulk soap dispensers in the public are contaminated with unsafe levels of bacteria.
  • A follow-up study published in the May 2011 issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology reports washing with soap from refillable bulk dispensers can leave hands with 25 times more bacteria after washing.
  • According to a study published in the January 2012 issue of Biofouling, biofilms grow in open, refillable bulk soap dispensers, causing recontamination of the soap even after the dispensers are cleaned with bleach.

Continuing to use these types of dispensers actually works against efforts to create a healthy environment. One way to overcome this challenge is to switch to sealed soap systems, which provide the solution to reducing contamination risks. The soap inside of these systems is protected from contamination because it is factory sealed and includes a fresh nozzle with each refill. Having the right kind of product and dispenser in place is only the start. It’s also important to understand there are factors and variables that impact efficacy of hygiene products used in the food service industry.

Variables that Influence Efficacy

There are numerous variables that influence efficacy. These include the following.

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