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Confessions of a health inspector: What is that mystery meat?

Food safety expert Francine L. Shaw shares her experience with commonly found violations and tips for preventing them.

As a food safety inspector, I have inspected nursing homes, casinos, fast food, casual and fine dining restaurants, convenience stores, hotels and more. During these visits, I have seen some establishments that are operating as they should be, and other places that I’ve had to shut down due to multiple food safety infractions.

I entered a restaurant not too long ago to find frozen chicken heaped in a pile in the filthy three-bay sink, with dirty dishes and utensils surrounding the frozen raw poultry. To make matters worse, there was a bag of raw onions just to the side of the sink, where some of the raw poultry juices were draining. In the walk-in cooler, raw produce was stored under seafood and poultry, where juices could drip on—and contaminate—the ready-to-eat foods, and mold was growing on the cooler’s walls. Syrup-like strings of contaminated grease residual were hanging from the vents above the grill, occasionally dripping onto product as it was being cooked. The cold food on the restaurant’s buffet was well over the FDA Food Code’s recommended 41⁰F, and the hot food was well under the recommended 135⁰F. I was stunned and horrified by all of the blatant food safety errors happening at this place.

Another time when inspecting a fine dining restaurant, I found numerous temperature violations, and mystery meat in five-gallon old chemical buckets in the walk-in cooler. The cooks were picking crabmeat off the leftovers from the guests’ plates to make crab imperial and cream of crab soup to serve to other diners! Much of the shelving in the facility was made of plywood, which can harbor all sorts of bacteria that can contaminate the food. An employee was literally crawling around on the shelving, where the dishware was stored, potentially contaminating the dishes with his hair, unwashed hands, shoes, etc. As I stood engaged in a heated discussion with the owner about these (and many other) infractions, a cockroach wandered across the stainless-steel countertop between us. The owner simply smashed it with his hand and knocked it onto the floor.

To be honest, I see cross-contamination issues, temperature abuse problems and insect infestations on a regular basis. I once caught a manager turning off the hot water heater – necessary to clean and sanitize dishes, equipment and employees’ hands – to save money! The one commonality that establishments with multiple violations have is they lack strong, knowledgeable leadership. 

Here are a few helpful tips from Food Safety Training Solutions Inc. for running a safe and successful commercial kitchen:

Stay current and get your team formally trained in a certified food manager course. This will reiterate the importance of the critical rules and regulations that you learned when you initially began in the foodservice business. Sometimes, a busy day or being short-staffed distracts from following the basic rules, and a refresher course can be a helpful reminder of the fundamentals.

Train your employees using a food handlers program. This will provide your team with basic (but critical) food safety knowledge. The more educated your team, the more profitable your organization. This also helps lessen the risk of food safety violations in your establishment.

Conduct self-inspections. This will enable you to catch small issues before they become big problems. For example, if you received a delivery and it wasn’t stored properly, this gives you the opportunity to take corrective action, reminding staff of proper protocols. Otherwise, there could be a spoilage issue, a cross-contamination or cross-contact problem or other challenges that may not be noticed until it’s too late. Hold one another accountable.

Use temperature logs. This is a valuable tool that will assist you with spotting temperature issues before they become a cost factor or liability issue. By utilizing temperature logs, you can take corrective action prior to having to waste product, therefore, decreasing food cost and increasing profit margins. This valuable tool aids in finding temperature issues before the health inspector writes them up as code violations, but, most importantly it’s a proactive means to keeping your patrons healthy.

Hire an agency to conduct third-party inspections. Often, bringing in an objective third party will boost your profits and increase your health inspection scores. Another set of eyes from the outside will see things from a different perspective, which can be invaluable. Third-party inspectors can review key elements that the health inspector will be assessing and point out possible infractions. Hire someone reputable, who knows the business and genuinely cares about your outcome.

Implement an active managerial control program. The purpose of active managerial control is to focus on controlling the five most common risk factors for foodborne illness:

- Purchasing food from unsafe sources

- Failing to cook food adequately

- Holding food at incorrect temperatures

- Using contaminated equipment

- Practicing poor personal hygiene

Taste correctly with a clean utensil every time – no double dipping!

Utilize single-use gloves properly. Single-use gloves are a protective barrier between your hands and the food you serve. If your gloves become contaminated, they’re useless. Prior to putting the gloves on, wash your hands properly with warm water 100⁰F (38⁰C) and soap, then dry them thoroughly. Never blow into the gloves or roll them to make them easier to put on - both of these practices will cause contamination. Single-use gloves must be changed as soon as they become dirty or torn, when changing tasks, after interruptions (such as taking a phone call), or after handling raw meat, seafood or poultry and before handling ready-to-eat food.

Holding a leadership role in the foodservice industry isn’t an easy job. It involves long hours, high stress and significant responsibility. Sometimes you work for many days straight without a day off, but you still need to be a positive role model for your staff. Leaders should model the importance of proper food safety protocols, ensuring that their entire team follows these important rules. By doing so, you’ll improve your business benefits (higher profits, strong customer loyalty) and keep your valued guests safe. 

Francine L. Shaw is president of Food Safety Training Solutions Inc., which offers a robust roster of services, including consulting, food safety training, food safety inspections, norovirus policies for employees, norovirus clean-up procedures, curriculum development, responsible alcohol service training, and more. The Food Safety Training Solutions team has more than 100 combined years of industry experience in restaurants, casinos and convenience stores. The company has helped numerous clients, including Paradies Lagardère, McDonald’s, Subway, Marriott, Domino’s, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America, Dairy Queen and Omni Hotel and Resorts, prevent foodborne illnesses. Additionally, they work with restaurants of all sizes, schools, medical facilities, convenience stores, hotels and casinos. Francine has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the Dr. Oz Show, the Huffington Post, Food Safety News and Food Management Magazine.

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