Theory vs. Practice: The 5 Commandments of Food Safety

Food safety requires a number of investments that have no real return: Time for training. Money on tools and resources. All the color-coded, compliant toys that make the kitchen look like it is stocked with Lego parts. Putting “best practices” in place with those ignored, vinyl binders collecting dust on some gray file cabinet. And that doesn’t even get into the warfare-like stockpile of chemicals taking up good closet space.

It would be a full-time to job to keep everything straight. But, without some nets — hairnets? — in place, a typical Tuesday afternoon can be anything but. Food safety is hugely important. In the 2016 AlixPartners North American Restaurant and Foodservice Survey, food safety ranks second with consumers’ soft spots, just below prices and even above nutritious options.

Few thoughts stir a restaurant operator as much as a sleep-disrupting nightmares of fire, employee injuries, and the local news crew kicking in the front door over allegations of food safety violations. But reality is reality; Unless something goes wrong, food safety isn’t a focal point of daily operations because there are simply too many balls to juggle at one time. Boiled down, here are five commandments for keeping the paying public healthy to spend their money in your establishment:

1. Forget ‘cleaning parties’ or deep cleans.

Keeping up with routine cleaning and incorporating a genuine cleaning schedule keeps the kitchen looking less like a science experiment gone awry and more like a place to work with productive and creative intent. Chef Andrew Tyler of Philadelphia-based La Colombe’s flagship in Fishtown, has a practical approach to keeping customers safe.

“Realistically, I clean as I go and I am thorough. I expect people that work for me to do the same. Mishandling ingredients is one of the biggest reasons for cross-contamination. Wash produce, use designated tools and areas for certain items, practice proper hygiene, label, store, and rotate,” he says.

2. Know thy vendors.

If somebody is knocking on the kitchen door with a back seat full of a “great deal on blue crabs,” you probably want to skip the savings. Product cost is always a concern for the kitchen commandos, but sacrificing a safe source to pinch some coins is using questionable food as a landing pad for bad ideas.

3. Use chemicals only when necessary.

With a nod to eco-consciousness, put down the spray bottle and look for alternatives.

“The only expenses that could closely be called 'unmanageable' are chemicals. There is an obnoxious variety, each claiming to do one thing different than the other. Commercial brand or not, you only have to ensure you clean properly. Soap, rinse, sanitize for every surface, utensils, and equipment,” adds Tyler.

An overabundance of the hazardous stuff in the food preparation area is a catalyst for chemical contamination. Dirty tabletop? Elbow grease goes a long way.

4. Trust the people...

“I do not require any real sanitation training, but it does help in the hiring process. You can tell a lot about a person's kitchen sanitation based on their personal hygiene. If you are filthy, most likely you will prep and handle food improperly. You cannot rationalize saving the mac ‘n cheese on your shirt for later use,” snarkily adds Tyler.

Using a thermometer, not groping the chicken salad with a naked hand, and holding food at right temperatures are signs of a kitchen craftsperson. Set the expectation and monitor for follow-through.

5. ...But be tough.

Food safety is non-negotiable. Set a policy or, better yet, lead by example and keep a hard line. For example, scooping ice with a glass is an oft-practiced, ill-founded ritual of errant servers and bartenders. No warnings, no second chances. Why risk customer injury for the sake of shaving two-seconds off of hustling a cocktail?

Think of it like an immunization.

So, the investment is to ensure that things go right, not just not go wrong. We don’t think much about the brakes on our car until they fail. We’ll spend money on gas and a good car wash, but until the brakes chirp and squeal, who is climbing under the Chevy to make sure all is well? Who is climbing into your walk-in cooler to make sure poultry is on the bottom shelf, the chili is chilled below 41° and the bottom shelf of the Metro rack is at least six-inches from the ground?

Tyler brings it all together, “speaking to every rational consumer, be realistic to the fact contamination can happen at any time, major or minor. Nothing short of a Center for Disease Control prescribed-level of sanitation will stop this highly probable fact. As a professional, I respect my ingredients, start to finish. I will do my best to ensure people eating my food are safe. Unless you enjoy sushi from a truck stop, trust those cooking your food, they are doing the same as I would.”