Keep It Clean: A Food Safety Cheat Sheet for Restaurants

By Barbara J. Pyper, MS, RD, SNS, FCSI, FAND, An Apple a Day LLC

Note: The 2013 FDA Food Code was used as a reference for this article. Please check your local Health Department for specific food code regulations for your location.

food handling.jpg

A Look Back

Jack in the Box, Blue Bell, Foster Farms, Chipotle, Costco… a food safety outbreak is never good news, and 2015 was a year of significance. Outbreaks included all types of foods in the U.S. A few of the cases this past year included:

  • Salmonella in cucumbers (4 deaths, 838 sickened): cases were reported in Arizona, California, Oklahoma, Texas, and California
  • Cyclospora in cilantro (546 sickened): 31 states affected
  • Salmonella in pork carnitas (70 sickened): Wisconsin
  • Salmonella from pork (192 sickened): Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, and Alaska

In the past five years, foods involved in an outbreak have included raw clover sprouts, ground beef, organic spinach and spring mix blend, romaine lettuce, Lebanon bologna, in-shell hazelnuts, beef, and cheese.

Modern-Day Challenges

Challenges to food safety are difficult to predict. The CDC notes that that these challenges include:

  • Changes in our food production and supply, including more imported foods
  • Changes in the environment leading to food contamination
  • Rising number of multi-state outbreaks
  • New and emerging bacteria, toxins and antibiotic resistance
  • New and different contaminated foods, including organic sprouted chia powder and prepackaged caramel apples, causing illnesses

How can operators stay on top of managing food safety? What’s changed in practice?

In “the old days,” the model for food safety was different. We worried about dirt, mop strings around mobile cart wheels, and whether our equipment could pass the “white glove” test. While these are still important, the focus has sharpened. Whether teaching and monitoring personal hygiene and hand-washing (as well as the health of our staff) or assuring that food is handled correctly from the field to the table, we are now taking and recording temperatures, minimizing cross-contamination, and preparing, cooking, serving and cooling food according to established temperature guidelines.

It goes without saying that food safety operators should place food safety at the front of the priority list.

Food Safety Top Ten “Musts”

10. Cool foods properly. 

There are two approved methods to cool food:

  • Foods that need time and temperature control for safety (TCS foods) must be cooled by a method that ensures that the food is cooled from 135°F to 70°F within two hours and then from 70°F to 41°F within an additional four hours. Or cool food to 41°F within a total of four hours.
  • Use techniques that will help food cool quickly:
    • Use shallow pans (no more than 4” thick and shallower if possible)
    • Cut large items into smaller pieces
    • Don’t cover during the cooling process (or vent)
    • Place in the coldest part of the refrigerator
    • If possible, use a rapid chill unit (blast chiller)
  • Monitor cooling temperatures

Takeaway: The days of putting leftover chili in a 5-gallon bucket, putting a lid on it, and placing it in the refrigerator have passed. Using 2-inch pans, ice wands, or a blast chiller are critical.

9. Cook and reheat foods to the correct temperature.  

  • Check your local food code for required temperatures
  • Use calibrated thermometers
food storage.jpg

8. Use correct procedures in preparing foods in advance. 

  • Prepare in small batches
  • Monitor temperatures
  • Be mindful to avoid or minimize the risk of cross-contamination

Tip: Preparing tuna salad? Place the pickle relish, tuna and mayonnaise in the cooler the night before. You’ll start the day ahead of the food safety temperature curve.

7. Reheat foods to the proper temperature.

  • Use the correct equipment for reheating foods
  • Check temperatures with calibrated thermometers

Takeaway: Forget the days of reheating macaroni and cheese on the steam table. The use of a steamer or oven that can get the food temperature to 165°F is essential. Remember that if you’ve cooked turkey today and are making turkey pot pie tomorrow, the completed turkey pot pie must now reach 165°F because you are technically reheating the turkey (though you would need to heat the turkey pot pie to 165°F regardless as it is a “mixed dish”).

6. Hold and monitor foods correctly.

  • Temperatures should be regularly checked for both hot and cold foods
  • Use calibrated thermometers
  • Be mindful to avoid or minimize the risk of cross-contamination

Tip: Have you taught your staff how to calibrate thermometers? Take the time to do so. Remember that checking digital thermometers is also important. You may want to consider providing a thermometer to each staff member responsible for checking temperatures.

5.  Purchase from reputable suppliers.

  • Visit your suppliers, ask about their food safety program, and check on their systems for traceability and for product recalls
  • Inspect trucks when they arrive at your back door

Takeaway: If you notice that the refrigeration is off in your distributor’s delivery truck, take note – and make a call.  

4.  Store food correctly.

  • Minimize the risk of cross-contamination by storing raw foods
  • Identify use-by or expiration dates
  • Rotate your food items, using the FIFO approach: First in, first out
  • Discard expired foods
  • Keep at least one thermometer in every cooler, and locate the thermometer in the warmest part of the unit
  • Don’t overfill coolers and freezers
  • Use open shelving to maximize airflow
  • Store hot food at or above 135°F and cold food at or below 41°F

Tip: Consider adding a column to your cold holding equipment log that encourages staff to check for cross-contamination every day. Also keep in mind that foods that are cooked to higher temperatures should be stored below other foods.

recording temps.jpg

3. Monitor food temperatures.

  • Food temperatures should be monitored throughout the flow of food, from receiving through cooling and reheating
  • Develop monitoring/recording forms and train staff to use them
  • Consider electronic monitoring tools

Takeaway: Remember that taking temperatures is 50 percent. You need a system to record temperatures. Whether you use a production or preparation sheet or have a special form, having written records, should there ever be a question, are essential.

2. Assure that standard operating procedures are followed.

  • Develop, implement, monitor and evaluate food safety standard operating procedures

Tip: Having guidelines, policies and procedures that clearly describe and outline your operation’s food safety process is important. You can find examples of standard operating procedures, including Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point examples here.

1.  Strengthen personal hygiene and hand-washing practices.

  • Make sure that hand washing sinks are stocked with supplies
  • Train staff to wash their hands frequently. Hands should be washed:
    • Before beginning work
    • After using the restroom
    • After handling raw protein
    • After touching hair, face, body and after sneezing, coughing or using a tissue.
    • After handling chemicals
    • After taking out the garbage
    • After clearing tables or busing dirty dishes
    • After handling money
    • After touching anything that could contaminate hands (dirty equipment, work surfaces, wiping cloths)
  • Train staff to wash their hands correctly
    • Remember the 20 second guideline for hand-washing