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 at end of article).
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 recordkeeping 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.”
While there are no national food safety standards that can be imposed on restaurants and supermarkets serving food, Klein would like to see a mandatory nationwide adoption of the most recent FDA Food Code (2009).
#1 Tip: Personal Hygiene
Most foodborne illnesses are caused by bacteria or other microorganisms spread by people who handle food, according to a report called “Serving it Safe” from the National Food Service Management Institute and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The report also noted that every action in food service could potentially impact food safety during purchasing, storing, preparing, holding, serving, or cleaning.
Perhaps the most basic step toward safe food is teaching restaurant, supermarket, and other food-handling staff the importance of basic hygiene. That includes washing their hands and exposed arms frequently and at key times in food handling, such as when they switch from touching raw to cooked food. Covering cuts also is critical.
The FDA’s 2009 Food Code cleaning procedures recommend that food employees clean their hands and the exposed portions of their arms, including prosthetic devices, for at least 20 seconds using a cleaning compound in a hand washing sink. To avoid re-contaminating their hands or prosthetics after washing, employees should utilize disposable paper towels or similar clean barriers whenever touching surfaces such as faucet handles and restroom door handles.
Injuries on the hands or lower arms should be cleaned and treated immediately so they do not become infected and contaminate food and equipment, according to The Idaho Food Safety and Sanitation Manual. Rubber or plastic gloves should be worn until the injury is healed and to prevent a bandage from getting into food. In addition, do not wash hands in sinks designated for food preparation or equipment and utensil washing as that can contaminate food, equipment, and utensils.
“Training is important,” says consultant Kornacki. “Fast food has rapid employee turnover, so you need policies in place and training programs.”
#2 Tip: Clean Contact Surfaces
Proper cleaning and sanitizing of all contact surfaces and utensils is a must, according to food sanitation experts, as food can typically get trapped in places like counter cracks and in between fork tines.
Unsanitary facilities and equipment may spread harmful organisms to people or food, according to the “Serving it Safe” report. Also, cockroaches, flies, mice, and other disease-spreading pests seeking food could contaminate food, equipment, or service areas.
The report also warns against preparing raw meat and raw fruits or vegetables on the same surface at the same time to prevent cross contamination and microbial transfer. This means avoiding cleaning or cutting raw chicken on the same surface as lettuce.
#3 Tip: Sanitizing Equipment
Food equipment such as slicers and fillers can be difficult to clean, especially the internal parts where a piece of meat could get stuck and become a hotbed for bacterial growth.
“There are going to be pieces of equipment that need to effectively be taken apart to a certain degree to clean them,” says Kornacki. “Equipment sometimes isn’t designed to be cleaned and sanitized efficiently.” He notes that he has spent more than six hours merely taking a slicer apart.
With high-moisture foods, there are still pieces of equipment that are hard to sanitize such as slicers and fillers, says Kornacki. Dry foods such as walnuts also can be problematic. He says the current challenges may lead to better equipment design going forward.
“Ideally, you’d break down the equipment every day,” Kornacki adds. “But you need to balance what is practical with what is effective.”
#4 Tip: Good Housekeeping
It’s important to apply good basic housekeeping and maintenance to food preparation areas of a store or restaurant. The “Serving it Safe” report notes that food service establishments use various chemicals to clean and sanitize and for pest control, but if not handled correctly they could contaminate food and make people sick, and even injure the employee.
Such hazardous chemicals include sanitizers, pesticides, whitening agents, detergents, polishes, and glass cleaners. The report urges establishments to teach employees how to use chemicals properly, store chemicals in their original containers away from food, make sure they are clearly labeled, and to use materials safety data sheets to assure they are stored and used correctly.
#5 Tip: Safe Storage
To keep bacteria and other microorganisms from growing, it is important to store food at the correct temperature for the proper amount of time. Microorganisms are more likely to grow in the danger zone where the internal food temperature is between 41 degrees Fahrenheit and 135 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the “Serving it Safe” report.
The report recommends that a food service operation document temperatures and keep written procedures at each stage of food production to make sure the time-temperature requirements are met.
“One of the things we’re seeing, especially with meat and poultry, is contamination after cooking,” says Klein. This is true if food is out set too long, or if it is cooked in advance. “A chicken may be cooked to 165 degrees, but if the internal temperature drops sufficiently, bacteria can grow,” she says of ready-made food that may linger in a warming tray for hours.
At the same time, where food is stored is important to prevent cross-contamination. The “Serving it Safe” report notes that a common mistake is to leave thawing meat on the top shelf in the refrigerator where it can drip onto foods below. Finally, it’s important to not cool food items in the same ice that will be consumed in food and beverages.
Valigra is a writer based in Cambridge, Mass. Reach her at [email protected].