KEEPING FOOD SAFETY HAZARDS IN CHECK

In our January article entitled “Understanding Your Operation: How to Begin Developing a Food Safety Program,” we discussed the first steps in developing a food safety plan. They include evaluating your establishment’s commitment to food safety; current education and training programs; your customer base; performing a thorough analysis of the establishment; your support system; and estimating the cost of establishing a food safety system.

By following these steps, you have now validated your commitment to food safety, assessed your training needs, and have begun getting your staff trained in a high quality food safety training program. Hopefully, upper management has also shown its support for your food safety efforts and understands that food safety is not an option, but an obligation for any size operation.

What’s next? Start by identifying the food safety hazards in your establishment. To do this, ask the following questions: Where can a breakdown in the system cause customers to become ill from eating the food we serve? At what point in the flow of food through my establishment—from receiving and storing to preparing and serving—could something go wrong? The answers to these questions will aid you in developing an effective food safety plan that helps to ensure the food you serve is safe.

To find potential hazards, step back and evaluate everything in your operation. Start with your menu. Are there any potentially hazardous foods—foods that will allow the rapid growth of microorganisms—that need to be handled extra carefully? Remember, foods such as meats, soups, seafood and egg dishes need special care. Write down all of the potentially hazardous foods and list their key ingredients. Now you can follow them through the food channel.

Let’s start at the first stage in the food channel—receiving. Here is where you begin providing safe food. Ask yourself a few questions: Does your delivery service deliver the food on time and at the right temperature? Is the quality of food always up to your standards? Have you discussed your expectations and concerns with each supplier? Are these expectations included in your client contract? Do your employees know how to inspect deliveries? Do your employees know that if the temperature of the food is less than 41°F or the food quality is poor, they should reject it? Are your employees efficient and prepared to get food shipments into storage quickly?

To answer these questions, evaluate and verify your receiving procedures and documentation. While you may have a good food safety program in your facility, a shipment of unsafe food may cause problems in your establishment. Remember, you can’t make unsafe food safe. You can, however, keep safe food safe. Make a point to be on hand during the next delivery. Inspect the vehicle delivering the products. Is it clean? Are the containers in good condition? Are raw animal foods separated from cooked and ready-to-eat products? Are cold foods stored with sufficient ice or under refrigeration?

Follow your employees during delivery and observe their practices. Do they examine the products? Do they know what to look for? Do they take temperatures of hot and cold foods and write them down? Review the documentation and verify they are only accepting those products that arrive at the proper temperature and that are of acceptable quality.

The next stop: Storage areas. Is the dry storage area clean and well organized? Are your employees practicing proper FIFO (First In-First Out) rotation? Your refrigerator works well, but does it hold its temperature even on busy days when it seems the door is open more than it is shut? Do your employees know that raw foods are always stored on the bottom shelf? Are they well aware of how to avoid cross-contamination? Again, review the practices of your employees, retrain, if necessary, and make sure a possible food safety hazard does not turn up in storage.

Now, we move into one of the more important steps in the food channel—preparation. While potential food hazards are often found here, it is here that you may notice the positive impact of food safety training among your employees.

For example, your employees should be washing and sanitizing cutting boards between uses or using color-coded cutting boards to prepare specific types of food. They should be thoroughly washing their hands for 20 seconds with soap and running water when starting a shift and before and after handling raw foods. The sanitizer bottle should be labeled so it can be used safely. All food should be cooked to the proper minimum internal cooking temperatures. These practices communicate your employees’ ability to prevent food hazards during the preparation process.

The last step in the food channel is serving, where food safety hazards can still occur. Foodhandlers and servers with unwashed hands can contaminate plates, surfaces, equipment and utensils, and foods held at improper temperatures can quickly become unsafe. Do your employees know how to minimize food hazards during serving? Do they have proper utensils to serve the food? If single use gloves are used, do they know how and when to use them? Do they know that gloves are used only in addition to proper handwashing and not as a substitution? By reviewing proper hygienic practices and serving procedures with them, you can help your employees serve safe food and keep those safety hazards in check.

Now that you have evaluated your establishment, did you find possible food hazards?

By pointing out the steps in the food channel where problems could occur, you have finished stage two of your food safety plan. Now that you have performed an analysis of your menu items, you’ll probably notice several common points where possible food hazards can be found in your establishment. These areas include cooking, cooling, reheating and long-term hot holding. Focusing most of your attention on these critical few—instead of the important many—will simplify your food safety task. Be aware that if a food hazard occurs, it probably will be in one of the aforementioned areas. Therefore, you need to set up specific practices for these areas.

Make sure the employees who work in these areas know the potential food safety hazards and verify that the practices are followed. Set up the procedures that will need to be maintained and train your employees in those procedures. Keep in mind, however, that the critical few must be done correctly every time in order to consistently serve safe food to customers. Dr. Catherine Adams, director of food safety and regulatory at Tricon Global Restaurants added, “In order to have a successful food safety plan, you must focus on having an infrastructure in place to embrace the program so it doesn’t erode over time. A good management system will ensure an effective food safety plan, now and for the longer term.”

Now, as you take another step back, observe how your training has taken effect. If upon checking, you see that proper food safety practices are not being

followed, correct the situation immediately in order to prevent customers from being served a potentially unsafe product. Retraining your staff and verifying that food safety procedures are in place will help ensure the food you serve is safe. It will also demonstrate your commitment to proper food safety procedures.

Jorge Hernandez is director of technical education at the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.