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Is Your Food Safety Plan Working?

In our article, “Keeping Food Safety Hazards in Check,” we discussed how to develop an effective food safety plan for your establishment. One of the questions we asked was “Where can a breakdown in the system cause customers to become ill from eating the food served?”

Through the development process of a food safety plan, you were able to find steps that were essential to the safety of the food served in your operation. These might have included receiving, storage, preparation and/or serving of food items. Called critical control points (CCPs), they are the steps that must be performed correctly every time to help ensure that food served is safe. Therefore, CCPs help answer the vital question, “Which step must be done correctly to help ensure that the food is safe?” According to Yvonne Pohlson, project manager at Audits International, a company that provides quality assurance and food safety information for retail and restaurant operations, CCPs are the areas where food safety can break down. Pohlson warns operators, “If you are not aware of these areas within your facilities, you are at a high risk for some type of food safety issue.”

Understandably, finding the CCPs within an operation is a priority when implementing a successful food safety plan. You may have noticed that different foods or menu items have different steps that must be taken to help guarantee the safety of the food. For example, a raw food product that does not need to be cooked before service may have receiving as a CCP. Therefore, you or your employees will need to assess that raw food is received as safely as possible.

Randy A. Dougherty, vice president of management systems at NSF International, and president & c.e.o. of NSF International Strategic Registrations (NSF-ISR), a wholly-owned subsidiary of NSF International, says that “determining a CCP is a difficult task because the decisions are not always clear. It requires an informed judgment.”

The evaluation, however, does not stop there. How do you know if a CCP is under control? How do you know a necessary step is actually being performed to a level that will guarantee the safety of the food product? For example, if cooking is the CCP for the food item, knowing that you must cook the food is only the first step. You need to realize that knowing the proper minimum internal temperature is the only way to assure that the food is safe. Therefore, keeping the CCP under control is a crucial step.

The proper minimum internal temperature, called a critical limit, must be met every time an item is cooked. Your employees must know both the item’s critical control points and the critical limit for each CCP. “A critical limit is not a target; if you view it as such, it will fail,” explains Dr. Gary Ades, president of Technical Food Information Spectrum (TFIS), a food safety company offering consulting, training and auditing services for the food industry. “It should be set based upon a maximum or minimum value. For instance, set it so as not to exceed a certain temperature point, if it does, then there is a risk for a food safety issue, whether it is biological, chemical or physical.”

To determine the CCPs, start by looking at your menu and identifying all potentially hazardous foods. Next think about the process each food item goes through from the time it is received to when it is served. For example, chicken is used in many menu items and is almost always received, stored, cooked, then served immediately in an establishment. Occasionally, you may either hot hold or cool and re-serve a menu item containing chicken. Through this process, you will notice that regardless of the number or type of food items served, all food items go through some of the same processes.

After performing an analysis of menu items, you will probably notice several common points where cooking, cooling and reheating must be done to help ensure the safety of the food product. Focusing the most attention on these few critical points makes the safety of the food served easier to manage. Remember that these are the areas where a breakdown may cause customers to become ill from eating the food served. Thus, you need to set up specific practices in these areas for various food items. Make sure that employees know the critical limits of cooking, cooling and reheating for particular foods and verify that food safety practices are followed.

How do you know that employees are performing the steps outlined to promote food safety? Establish procedures for checking or monitoring their work on the critical control points. For example, since cooking food to the minimum recommended internal temperature is critical to food safety, using a calibrated thermometer to check temperatures is one way to guarantee that food is being cooked to the established critical limit. To build the practices necessary to monitor the CCPs, answer the question, “How do I know the food has met its critical limit?”

There are a variety of ways to monitor critical control points, but each procedure will depend on the CCP and the established critical limit. Pohlson states, “monitoring is the most important step in a food safety plan. A checklist should be reviewed before an operation opens and at each shift change thereafter.”

There will be occasions when the critical limit is not met. Ask the question, “What will I do if something goes wrong?” What will you or your employees do? Will the food be served? If food hasn’t met its critical limit, procedures need to be in place so that food is either served safely or destroyed. Remember that a foodborne illness is more costly than throwing a batch of food away.

To continue an effective food safety plan, analyze the foods that need extra care during handling and follow them through the receiving, storage, preparation and serving procedures to pinpoint potential problems. If it is revealed that those foods don’t meet the set limits, put procedures in place to correct the situation and prevent customers from being served a potentially unsafe product. Ades says to think of your food safety plan as a living plan. “Reevaluate it when new variables come into the mix such as a new menu, process, equipment or concept,” he says. “Also, spend as much time in developing food safety systems as you do in developing a menu.” These food safety steps will not only help to ensure that the food served to customers is consistently safe, but will also demonstrate your commitment to proper food safety procedures.

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

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