Overcome Communication Barriers to Food Safety

A young food worker raises his hand in class and asks if it is really necessary to put raw potatoes in the dishwasher before he cooks them. The instructor looks at him quizzically and says, “No, why, are you doing that at work?”

The young man says that yes, his boss makes everyone put raw potatoes through the dishwasher cycle before they cook them. When asked why, the young man replies, “Because my boss’s mother did it that way.” The practice is engrained in his boss’s brain regardless of the reason behind it. And, whether the practice is compromising the quality of the potatoes or not, the important message about properly washing produce is lost in translation.

Food safety is often like that. Industry and regulators are all working hard trying to do a good job, with the shared goal of protecting the public. But we don’t always speak the same language, and we often look at issues from different perspectives with different priorities. Due to miscommunication, cultural differences, or language barriers, the reasons behind certain food safety practices are not always clear.

On one side of the fence, regulators are trying to enforce the food code in their jurisdictions, and they often have a range of duties in addition to food—soil evaluations, Title 5, housing and pool inspections.

On the other side, food workers are trying to put out safe, wholesome food products, while still earning a profit. A chef might put out an exquisite food presentation, thinking of his customers’ delight at the wonderful display. But a health inspector looks at the same buffet with a different set of eyes, wondering how long the foods have been sitting out of refrigeration; why exposed foods aren’t protected from flying insects; and observing dirty hands and cuts on the chef’s fingers.

Restaurants have great challenges, including high turnover rates for staff, language barriers, and food safety training gaps, and they understand the consequences are severe if they don’t do it right. Many health departments seek compensation for the costs of investigating outbreaks and assess fines for critical violations and reinspections—and traceback methods make the food industry more accountable and financially liable than ever.

Adding to the confusion are differing versions and occasional misinterpretations of the food code that operations are expected to follow. This is a common source of frustration for companies with units in different parts of the country. What is judged to be a critical violation by one inspector might be interpreted differently by another—sometimes even in the very same jurisdiction. While there are many diligent, knowledgeable inspectors conducting risk-based evaluations, others are misinterpreting the food code and prohibiting certain risky processes, even if industry can document safe procedures. Unfortunately, these imprecise individuals can quickly ruin the credibility of the good inspectors out there.

More challenges arise from distributors, including deliveries left out by the back door in the middle of summer; Listeria coming in on the milk crates from delivery trucks; and some vendors trying to pass off older product on less savvy individuals. One restaurant chain confronted its egg supplier over eggs that were coming in watery, with yolks breaking on the grill and a great deal of discarded product. The egg vendor replied, “Well, it’s summertime. Chickens drink more water, and their eggs come out more watery.” Where is the science that backs this up? It’s just one more hurdle that restaurants must face as they try to run safe, efficient operations.

Differing versions and occassional misinterpretations of the food code are common sources of frustration for companies with units in different parts of the country. What is judged as a critical violation by one inspector can be interpreted differently by another.

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