Foodborne illnesses pose a serious threat to the health of diners throughout the country as well as the overall success of a restaurant. Many people think that food safety is as simple as maintaining clean cooking utensils and proper hand washing routines. However, complete prevention of foodborne illnesses requires more than just these basic precautions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) estimates that 76 million people get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 Americans die each year from foodborne illnesses. The cost to individuals and restaurant owners, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is $35 billion each year.
With American restaurants serving more than 50 billion meals every year, the risks of foodborne illness outbreaks are very real, but can easily be prevented if proper procedures are implemented. Restaurants should focus on several key areas to help ensure that they are foodborne-illness free, including cross-contamination prevention, zone isolation and time-temperature control. Combining these procedures will help prevent potential illnesses, deaths and unnecessary restaurant expenses.
Preventing Cross- Contamination
Using contaminated knives, cutting boards or utensils causes cross-contamination, one of the leading causes of foodborne illnesses. If restaurants do not use safe procedures, food prep areas can easily become contaminated, spreading bacteria and illnesses to restaurant customers and employees.
Certain foods carry specific risks of contamination. Salmonella is usually found on poultry, while E. Coli is typically linked to beef. Slicing chicken and beef on the same cutting board or with the same knife without sanitizing first can easily lead to cross-contamination.
Luckily, cross-contamination is a problem that is as easy to prevent as it is to spread. Employing a standard color-coding system, dedicating equipment for specific tasks based on the color of the equipment and the type of food being prepared, is a simple solution.
“If you’re working with chicken on one cutting board, you don’t want to turn around and slice fruit on the same board,” says Megan Bradley, technical advisor and certified food safety professional for Daydots, a manufacturer and distributor of food safety solutions. “Even with diligent clean-up, there is always the chance that food can be contaminated if you use the same equipment and utensils for different tasks.”
In October 2002, The Daydots Foundation for Food Safety commissioned a study by the Purdue University Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management and the Arthur Avery Foodservice Research Laboratory on food safety practices in U.S. restaurant chains. This study found that only 50 percent of the restaurants surveyed recommended/required the use of color-coded cutting boards.
Of the half using color-coded cutting boards, only two operators took it to the next level by recommending the use of matching color-coded utensils.
In addition to using color-coded cutting boards and utensils, restaurant employees must exercise proper hand-washing and glove procedures to prevent cross-contamination. Foodborne illnesses can be spread by working with one type of food and then another, without washing hands and changing gloves in between. The proper procedure is to remove gloves, wash hands and put on new, clean gloves when working with a variety of foods.
By consistently abiding by the color-coding standard on everything from cutting boards, knives and tongs to spoons, scrub brushes and storage containers, and by using proper hand washing and glove procedures, food service operations can drastically reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
If precautionary steps only are taken during the food preparation and storage processes, the spread of dangerous contaminants will not be prevented. Though many food service operators believe they are running safe and sanitary kitchens, some very simple practices often are overlooked that could prevent the spreading of contaminants throughout the building and into the food being served.
However, there is a simple solution: zone isolation. Zone isolation enables restaurant employees to stop the spread of contaminants, such as bacteria and viruses, at the source. Contaminants can be isolated by establishing zones within a restaurant building and only using designated equipment and cleaning supplies in each area.
Zone isolation prevents the spread of viruses and bacteria from one area to another, dramatically reducing the spread of contamination. “Color-coded mops, brooms, buckets and other equipment aid in the prevention of contamination and in the management of sanitary conditions and zone isolation,” Bradley says. “These types of products are mandatory in the fight to prevent the spread of germs and bacteria.” »
Zones can easily be created based on a food service operation’s visible boundaries, such as walls and doors that separate the kitchen, restrooms, dining area and entryways. Each zone should be assigned a color and have its own corresponding color-coded mops, brooms, dust pans etc. for easy use by employees. This simple process can help prevent the spread of dangerous contaminants within a restaurant.
The National Restaurant Association Education Foundation reports time-temperature abuse as the most commonly reported cause of foodborne illnesses. It is crucial for foodservice employees to control both time and temperature at every stage in the kitchen, from receiving to customer service.
The temperature danger zone for food is between 41 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. If left within this temperature zone for more than four hours at any part of the process, foods will be susceptible to the bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses. Time and temperature must be monitored throughout the food service process to ensure the foods they serve are safe.
Temperature is especially crucial during the food preparation process. If foods are served undercooked, the results could become life-threatening. The internal temperatures of all products should be checked with a thermometer before being served.
Poultry should register an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds; ground beef at 155 degrees for 15 seconds; pork at 145 degrees for 15 seconds; beef roasts at 145 degrees for 3 minutes; beef steaks, pork, veal, lamb, fish and game animals at 145 degrees for 15 seconds.
In the 2002 study by the Purdue University Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management and the Arthur Avery Foodservice Research Laboratory, less than half of the respondents followed the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) recommendation of checking the temperature of hot food every two hours during holding.
Various products are available to make temperature checks quick and easy. “Thermometers range in styles, sizes and functions,” said Bradley. “For example, the thermocouple thermometer gives accurate readings and offers a wide variety of temperature probes to best suit your cooking needs.”
Another major danger zone that food encounters is the storage zone. The first challenge is making sure that all food is properly stored in the right storage facility at the proper temperature. Maintaining safe temperatures in refrigerated storage serves to prevent food from spoiling and dangerous bacteria from spreading. Overloading the refrigerator should be avoided, as it weakens airflow. Temperature can be properly monitored by placing thermometers in both the front and back of the refrigerator.
Moisture and heat pose a threat to the safety of dry and canned goods making proper temperature maintenance in dry storage equally important. Storerooms should be cool, dry, well ventilated and away from direct sunlight. For the safest results, shelving in dry storage should be at least six inches off the floor and six inches from the walls.
Products such as specific labels are available to help maintain proper temperatures for food, as they monitor temperature exposure over time.
Food safety is a crucial issue for everyone in the restaurant and hospitality industry. Not only does contamination of food cause millions of illnesses each year, but it also is extremely costly. According to the National Restaurant Association, a single foodborne illness outbreak can cost a foodservice operation as much as $75,000 in legal fees, medical claims, lost employee wages, cleaning and sanitizing, discarded food supplies and lost income from negative publicity and/or being shut down.
There are all too many opportunities for food to become contaminated as it is produced and prepared. So, by neglecting the simplest food safety measures, foods can quickly become dangerous. Basic food handling and food safety knowledge enables both restaurants and consumers to combat the spread of foodborne illnesses.
Mike Milliorn is president and CEO of Daydots (Fort Worth, Texas). Reach him at 800-458-3687.