During a recent visit to a local senior living community in Oregon, I was surprised to learn that the community kitchen had not been inspected by the State or County Public Health Authorities for over two years. At first, it seemed a bit relaxed for a commercial kitchen serving three meals a day, seven days a week to over 120 residents—considering the majority of them were well within the definition of “at-risk groups.”
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However, when it comes to senior living property management, food service licensing shows a broad spectrum of differences between an independent senior living community and an assisted living or memory care facility. This in turn determines whether the community kitchen gets labeled as a commercial kitchen or a residential kitchen, despite the community operating 100 percent as a for-profit business model.
At some of the independent senior living communities I’ve visited, food safety management systems were often perceived as an expensive overhead versus a secure investment in the residents, employees, and their families. Checking the elementary boxes of food safety management included swift onboarding training (often online using recycled training videos), basic ServSafe qualifications, and a skeletal (often paper-based) temperature monitoring and documentation system. An “emergency preparedness” manual seemed to be in place for situations such as a norovirus outbreak, aimed at responding to a crisis rather than preventing it.
There is definitely a yawning gap between food safety and quality practices observed within an assisted living/memory care facility and an independent senior living property, and in both situations, food traceability and recall systems are often a missing element as they are not mandated by state or county regulations. For instance, a community could host a bake sale or festive dinner and open its doors to the general public with only a rudimentary food safety system to support them in the event of a foodborne disease or illness outbreak.
A closer look should be given to independent senior living facilities. Some of the food safety concerns that need to be addressed include, but are certainly not limited to, the following areas.
Proper food labeling and menu design. The common practice observed in these facilities is utilizing multi-fold, paper-based menus with description of dishes in miniscule fonts to trim down on costs. In addition, allergens may not necessarily be highlighted on these menus.
Investing in infrastructure, facilities, and better ventilation systems. Most properties that are converted to a senior living community often come with their inherited challenges as well—poor electrical systems, challenging plumbing and ventilation, etc. Strategies such as deploying square cut carpets accommodate easy replacement in the event of a spill or a stain, versus repeated attempts to salvage an irreversibly soiled patch of carpet.
Investing in ergonomic food storage systems complement food inventory management systems and considerably reduce food wastage as well.
Staying updated. Foodborne pathogens have both evolved and adapted over the years. With new antibiotic resistant strains emerging in the food service industry, it is important for key stakeholders to stay informed and updated on the latest food safety and quality trends, regulations, and preventive measures being employed within the market.