It’s a Date!: Date-marking Helps Protect Food Quality and Safety

Date-marking is an important best practice in the food service industry that helps protect both food quality and food safety for businesses.

However, food service operators have not uniformly adopted procedures to meet minimum FDA standards. Only the most progressive food safety programs have implemented the types of comprehensive date-marking and food- rotation systems that can ensure compliance on a consistent basis. This fact was highlighted in a recent FDA report on food safety risk factors within restaurants and grocery stores; one of the report’s more surprising findings was the number of operations with critical violations in date-marking. FDA Cites Critical Violations in Date Marking In 2004’s “A Report on the Occurrence of Foodborne Illness Risk Factors in Selected Institutional Foodservice, Restaurant, and Retail Food Store Facility Types,” the FDA identifies a variety of foodborne illness risk factors and tracked over a six-year period from 1998 to 2004. During the study, researchers documented food safety violations and watched for progressive improvements. Their results showed that the percent of noncompliance with food safety standards did not improve significantly. Further, improper or missing date-marking was considered a critical violation, and it appeared repeatedly.

While observing food service and food retail operations, researchers asked three critical questions about date-marking violations, all of which are based on the FDA Model Food Code recommendations. Those questions are:

  1. For foods prepared on-site, had they been date-marked within 24 hours of being prepared?
  2. For commercially processed foods, had they been date-marked within 24 hours of being opened?
  3. Were foods discarded when their use-by date had passed?

The findings were quite alarming. The out-of-compliance rate was as high as 81 percent. Although many operations were discarding food on time – as much as 62 percent on average – they were not date-marking foods as current food safety research recommends.

Many operators are careful to rotate their foods properly, but do so to preserve quality rather than to achieve top food safety standards. Current recommendations from the FDA Model Food Code use a combination of time and temperature to control bacteria. Compliance with this code relies heavily on proper date-marking to indicate the correct dates at which foods should be used or discarded. For example, the code stipulates that foods held at 41Þ For lower can be kept for a maximum of seven days. For older refrigerators that keep foods between 41Þ and 45Þ F, the time is reduced to four days. In order to enforce this rule, all foods must be date-marked. If food is prepared on the premises and will be held more than 24 hours, it should be marked with the use-by or discard date. Discard dates on commercially processed foods are calculated based on when they are opened, providing that the discard date does not exceed the manufacturer’s use-by date. Foods that are past their use-by date, or that have not been date-marked, should be discarded because bacteria may have reached levels high enough to cause illness.

The Culprit: Listeria

To understand why accurate date-marking is such an important food safety issue, one needs to look no further than the microscopic bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes. It’s no secret that Listeria is one tough bug. It is found in soil and water, which means that it can be almost anywhere. It can grow even when there is no oxygen, such as in vacuum packaging. On top of that, it can multiply at refrigeration temperatures as low as 37Þ F. In fact, these resilient bacteria resist the negative effects of freezing, drying and heating fairly well. Although the bacteria are killed when foods are cooked properly, contamination often occurs after cooking. If the contaminated food is served cold or not reheated properly Listeria can be present at high enough levels to cause illness. Most healthy persons are not likely to become seriously ill from these bacteria. Still, each year, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 2,500 people will become seriously ill, resulting in 500 deaths. Because 20 percent of serious cases prove to be fatal, food safety experts have flagged this issue as requiring special attention.

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