When contaminated food reaches consumers, the results can range from a mild case of cramps to outright loss of life. According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, foodborne illnesses cause 53,245 hospitalizations in America each year, and take the lives of 2,377 people. The USDA says these incidents result in a loss of $15.6 billion a year for the organizations responsible—not counting the millions of dollars in recovery costs and loss of brand reputation incurred by companies caught up in these outbreaks.
Consider the E. coli outbreak that recently enveloped Chipotle, resulting in a food safety crisis that sickened hundreds of its patrons. Business across the Chipotle chain immediately decreased and remained that way months after the outbreak with comparable-store sales still down by more than a fifth.
The company spent millions of dollars to determine the cause of the outbreak, on promotional food giveaways to win back customers, and on an intensive advertising campaign (the largest in its history) designed to restore its brand.
While foodborne illnesses likely will never be eradicated, utilizing the “Core 4” principles of food safety remain a viable approach to limiting its prevalence. Core 4 includes clean, separate, cook, and chill.
Bacteria is a major reason why food is deemed “unsafe.” When the temperature of food is not properly maintained, bacteria develops. There are many opportunities for this to happen during production, transport, after it is delivered, and while it’s stored in the backroom.
Infectious bacteria can thrive anywhere. By placing an emphasis on hand, utensil, and surface washing, the risk of foodborne illness can be reduced. Easy-to-follow cleansing tips include:
- Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm running water before and after handling food or using the bathroom;
- Wash the surfaces of cutting boards, counters, dishes, and utensils after each use with warm, soapy water;
- Use paper towels to clean counters or spills as they soak in potential contaminants rather than spread them like cloth towels; and
- Rinse or blanch the surfaces of fresh fruits and vegetables to rid of any dirt or bacteria.
Even after washing hands and surfaces consistently, people can still be exposed to dangerous illness-inducing bacteria by not properly separating raw meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs. To avoid cross-contamination, follow these rules:
- Avoid placing ready-to-eat food on a surface that previously held raw meat, seafood, poultry, or eggs;
- Use separate cutting boards when preparing fresh produce and uncooked meats to eliminate the spread of any bacteria either may be carrying to the other; and
- Always properly wash the surfaces exposed to raw meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs under warm, soapy running water.
Regardless of being proactive with cleaning and separating, cooking food to the appropriate internal temperature is still vital. Undercooking may result in the survival of dangerous bacteria that could make consumers ill. FoodSafety.gov recommends safe minimum temperatures for steak/ground beef at 160 degrees Fahrenheit, chicken/turkey at 165 degrees Fahrenheit, seafood at 145 degrees Fahrenheit, and egg dishes warm until 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
Last yet not least, chilling food is important because it decelerates the bacterial growth process. By mitigating this, it allows businesses to reduce the risk of being responsible for foodborne illnesses. Be sure to:
- Always keep the refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below;
- Not over-pack the refrigerator—proper airflow circulation is paramount; and
- Not allow raw meats, eggs, or fresh produce to sit out for more than 2 hours without refrigeration.
Enforcing the use of checklists can help food businesses ensure the previously mentioned best practices are indeed executed.
In today’s world, checklists are not just reminders for school children to complete trivial tasks. They are key cogs in the everyday operations of surgeons, military leaders, and food safety practitioners. Utilized as a reminder exercise, and comprised of a list of tasks to complete, checklists have become necessary in the food safety industry.