A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. That is the key issue as regards food safety along the entire food supply chain. While the number of foodborne illness incidents that can annually be traced to supply chain issues is difficult to establish, any potential for food contamination is a significant, industry-wide concern.
According to the FDA, one of the five most significant factors contributing to food borne illness is "food from an unsafe source." This underscores how critical it is to select the right supplier. It is only by working cooperatively with growers, suppliers, distributors and regulators that we can ensure the safety of the food being served.
In many instances, like refrigerated ready to eat (RTE) foods, you cannot improve the safety and quality of the food you receive through cooking. These foods are only as safe as they are when they are delivered.
As you consider a supplier, select only those that are regularly inspected and in compliance with the law. A copy of the last inspection performed by a government agency or an independent third party audit organization will provide assurance that the food you receive is handled safely before it arrives at your establishment (see sidebar on p. 74).
That is only the first step. Ensuring food safety at the point of receiving is a shared responsibility, and it is at the loading dock door that you establish the most important controls in the receiving process.
The Receiving Process
While many foodservice operations follow the Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Point (HACCP) system and have developed written plans to address and prevent food safety hazards, many operations still rely on the provider to deliver a safe product. It is at the "hand off" that key relationships will either facilitate smooth and safely run food safety systems or disable a well established HACCP plan.
"Number one, without a doubt, make sure you have a reputable supplier," says Tom Ryan, director of food service at Saint Andrew Life Center, a 250-bed senior care facility in Niles, IL. "And never make such a critical decision based on price alone...service and reputation are the most important factors."
The volume of business at Saint Andrew necessitates sizable food deliveries three days a week. Ryan relies on relationships with his distributors' salespeople to make sure that deliveries occur at a convenient time so that he, or someone he trains, can be scheduled to receive and inspect the shipments and oversee their immediate and proper movement into storage.
Ryan's training as a Certified ServSafe Instructor and Certified Dietary Manager (CDM) provides the skills and background to help him detect safety breaches at the receiving point. For example, he notes that chefs can get so busy in time-sensitive, food preparation activities that they are not able to focus their complete attention on receiving priorities.
If food products cannot be received and stored immediately and properly, the supply chain begins to break down rapidly and food safety and quality can be the casualties.
Once your receiver's role and responsibilities are established, it's important that training and retraining become an ongoing process. Training focused on the safe delivery and storage of foods is available through a number of federal and state regulatory agencies and industry associations (see sidebar).
For example, The National Restaurant Association Education Foundation's ServSafe program is one of the industry's most widely used educational tools. Since the NRAEF program requires retraining and certification every five years, that ensures that a receiver's familiarity with new regulations and recommended practices can be updated routinely.
Also, organizations such as the Dietary Managers Association (DMA) hold regular local meetings expressly designed to cover industry and regulatory changes and how to administer them. By participating in one of these programs, your establishment's designated receiver can become a resource for the entire foodservice operation.
A Pivotal Role
Once the receiving process is established according to recommended guidelines, it's time to forge another critical distributor relationship—with the delivery drivers.
"I can't personally inspect every case that comes in," says Ryan. "But I do make it a point to visit the dock a couple of times a week to talk with the drivers and do random inspections. I look to make sure the refrigeration unit is running, that thermometers and temperature recorders are working properly, that trucks are clean and that there is no possibility for cross-contamination to occur."
Temperature monitoring at receipt is critical. Cold foods must be at 41°F or below and frozen foods must arrive frozen and free from evidence of temperature abuse (e.g., thawing and re-freezing). One exception is eggs, which can be received at 45°F.
Like most foodservice operators, Tom relies on the drivers to unload shipments according to safety guidelines. That means complying with procedures to maintain the proper temperature and package integrity of delivered product as well as handling procedures to avoid any possibility of cross-contamination. Procedures vary for different types of products and drivers should be knowledgeable about these differences. They should be able to answer customer questions about packaging and the normal/abnormal appearance of food products.
In general, if a driver cannot provide an immediate answer to a food safety question, he or she should know who within the distribution company can. The distributor can serve as both a strategic and on-call safety consultant in the receiving process, providing accurate information on topics like shelf-life, appropriate storage practices and the specific food safety risk factors associated with particular items. (For example, some distributors have dedicated regional managers assigned to answering out of the ordinary questions and to assisting customers in obtaining food safety training or in preparing comprehensive food safety plans in response to health inspections).
Your local and state health departments are also allies in such efforts. Most inspectors view their role as educators rather than disciplinarians.
"In the past there have been adversarial relationships between the industry and inspectors," says Cindy Ulch, Public Health Rating and Survey Officer for the State of Nevada's Bureau of Health Protection Services. "But there is growing recognition that we still have huge gaps nationwide in food protection and that it is only by working together that we can close or narrow those gaps."
Frank Ferko, Director of Quality Assurance at RARE Hospitality International, which operates and franchises 281 restaurants nationwide, agrees. "There has been a move away from an emphasis on scoring floors, walls and ceilings, which often do not materially affect food safety, and toward a focus on risk factors," he says.
"By looking at risk factors—the things that have proven over time to affect food safety, primarily temperature, cross contamination and personal hygiene—the inspection process has resulted in the reduction of food borne illness as verified by CDC/FDA research."
There is always the possibility for food safety to be compromised by high-profile, disastrous events, as we have seen in the past year. But for most of us, most of the time, it is our ongoing commitment to improving food safety in everyday processes that does the most to ensure the safety of the food we deliver, prepare and serve.
Modern food processing has vastly changed our industry and allowed huge improvements to be made in food safety. However, every touch point is critical. Strong, effective food safety programs require that we all look to maintain high standards, effective processes and dependable supply chain partnerships.
SAFE RECEIVING RESOURCES
American Public Health Association (for state and local public health departments) http://www.apha.org
SELECTING A DISTRIBUTOR
Evaluate a distributor's commitment to food safety by:
Jorge Hernandez is VP Food Safety & Quality Assurance, for US Foodservice and is responsible for setting, implementing and monitoring food safety and quality assurance policies for US Foodservice and its 80 distribution centers and 15 manufacturing facilities. Prior to joining USF, Jorge was the VP of Food Safety & Risk Management for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.