Let the records show that I am a big proponent of food safety … big … HUGE! The last thing that a dining patron should have to worry about is whether or not food poisoning is a potential side effect of the dining experience. Unfortunately, wide spread implementation of safe food handling practices, throughout most segments of the hospitality industry, has not been as successful as originally hoped.
Food Safety Hype
Food safety, for our purposes, will refer to the handling of food and food contact items in a manner that reduces the risk of a foodborne illness outbreak. Food safety buzz is everywhere. It is a regular story for local news programs throughout the country. Equal attention is being given to the topic by foodservice equipment and supplies manufacturers, as they are eager to develop tools to assist with the implementation of safe food handling practices. Likewise, local health department inspectors and industry associations who promote food safety education are making sure that the topic's importance is clearly conveyed.
I believe that the intentions of all parties involved in the promotion of food safety are genuine. Implementation of safe food handling practices to this point, however, has been confusing and discouraging. In my experience, the enforcement of food safety related requirements has been inconsistent. In addition, new food safety related requirements are rarely communicated clearly and expectations are rarely addressed with end users.
Another reason that the implementation of safe food handling practices has been difficult is (drum role please) … money. It seems as though several members of the hospitality industry have focused on the potential profit from food safety related efforts first, and the benefits of food safety implementation second. As a result, progress has been slow.
Steps You Can Take
Why wait for the rest of the industry to standardize enforcement? Implementing food safety principles makes good business sense. Sure, there may be some costs involved … but look at the alternatives. What is the cost of a foodborne illness outbreak? Or, how about losing the stigma that food safety is a hush-hush topic and advertising your efforts to your customers. Let them know you are working your tail off to provide safe food. They will appreciate it.
Most food becomes "unsafe" through cross-contamination, the contact of food or food contact surfaces that are sanitary with those that possess organisms. The best way to prevent cross-contamination is proper receiving … never let the contaminated product enter your facility. This is your first and best line of defense. To assist with this effort, a proper receiving area should be designed and included in every foodservice facility, regardless of size.
Should contaminated product slip through the back door, certain key design elements can help reduce the risk of cross contamination. First, be sure that your facility's design follows the flow of the food through the facility. In other words, limit or eliminate the possibility that potentially hazardous and ready-to-eat products will cross paths. By preventing the crossing of flow patterns in the kitchen, the risk of cross contamination is reduced.
Next, provide separate food preparation areas for potentially hazardous and non-hazardous foods, and separate these areas with physical barriers. For instance, provide separate vegetable and meat/fish/poultry preparation areas with a physical element between them. It is awful tough for chicken juice splatter to go through a wall and come in contact with ready-to-eat vegetables. Wallah … cross contamination is prevented. The same principles of separation apply to the ware washing section of the kitchen, an area prone to cross-contamination. Given the quantity of soiled and clean product in one confined area, separation is critical in ware washing.
Specific equipment may also be provided within a foodservice facility to assist with safe food handling practices. Such equipment selections include hands-free hand sinks and blast chillers, amongst many others. Hand sinks operated by electronic eye, foot lever, or knee valve activation reduce cross contamination that can occur from touching the faucet handles. The blast chiller is designed to reduce the internal temperature of a product to a safe temperature (below 41F) in a time period that complies with food safety standards. Even if the unit is not purchased right away, providing the utility requirements during renovation or construction can save a great deal of money and provide valuable benefits down the road.
Proper storage, whether of food or pots, pans, and utensils, is important as well. In my designs, I do not provide drawers below table tops, as they have a tendency to become disorganized, unsanitary and hard to monitor. Instead, I use utensil racks that are in full view. With regards to food, raw product should always be stored below cooked product. Separate shelving colors or shelf labels can be used to ensure that this practice is followed.
The items listed above are just some of the design related methods for reducing the risk of cross-contamination and, ultimately, the possibility of a foodborne illness outbreak. In conjunction with operational procedures, these design components can assist in providing a safer product for the customer. Take a look at your facility. Are you preventing cross contamination … by design?