Listeria, E. coli and salmonella are words you don't want associated with your restaurant. According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), restaurant workers wash their hands an average of 16 times during an eight-hour shift – not nearly enough. Further, 1 in 4 reportedly did not wash their hands in between touching raw meat and ready-to-eat food. Odds are these workers are some of your employees or co-workers. All it takes is one publicized event to decimate your business, but there is a lot you can do to prevent foodborne illness and food safety problems.
In addition to employee hygiene issues, you need to ensure all food is prepared, stored, and served properly according to current health and safety standards and that all food details are tracked. Further, to protect customers with potentially deadly food allergies, you'll need to ensure that allergens (and any utensils or objects that come in contact with them) are kept separate at all times from other food items.
Each year, 48 million people are sickened from foodborne illnesses in the U.S., and an estimated 3,000 people die from those illnesses.
It is your job to keep your restaurant as clean as possible and prevent cross-contamination of food by enforcing the most up-to-date food safety practices. You do not want to be on the receiving end of a major food safety violation or investigation or, worse, be subject to a lawsuit for failing to protect customers.
These are the four major food safety areas that are common sources of contamination and by which your eating establishment will be inspected and evaluated:
Food is stored using safe practices with minimal risk for cross-contamination. Proper food storage techniques also involve keeping meticulous records, properly labeling food items and maintaining your restaurant's refrigeration systems.
This area requires a high level of cleanliness and minimal opportunity for contamination. Cutting and food-prep utensils (as well as storage containers) are clean and properly sanitized before and after use. Perishables that are susceptible to bacterial growth are stored and handled at recommended temperatures prior to, during and after prep. Food is thoroughly cooked to recommended temperatures.
Humans carry pathogens and transport them. Strict handwashing and glove-wearing protocols need to be enforced as well as other precautions, such as chair and beard nets.
Patrons may have severe, even life-threatening, reactions when exposed to allergens, such as nuts or shellfish. You need to devise a plan to segregate allergens from other food items to avoid cross-contamination.
Each employee will need to do their part. For restaurant managers, that means educating employees about safe food-handling procedures, establishing strict practices, overseeing and monitoring all aspects of food preparation, complying with hygiene and sanitation standards, maintaining a current license, and staying on top of reputation management. Restaurant workers can do their part by maintaining strict personal hygiene standards, continually learning about safe food practices, adhering to food safety routines, and keeping their permits for food handling and serving current.
Where to Learn About Food Safety
There are numerous resources available to help you develop good food safety and hygiene routines. Below are five helpful and informative websites:
United State Department of Agriculture (USDA)
The USDA provides a wealth of food safety information for both citizens and restaurants. On the website you'll find information on such topics as safe defrosting methods, barbecuing, cutting-board safety and thermometer information.
Deemed as the "gateway to federal food safety information," this website provides information on safe food handling and preparation. It also offers information on recalls and recent outbreaks.
ServSafe – National Restaurant Association
Here, you'll find classes on manager and employee training, safe serving of alcohol, allergens, and much more. The classes are not free, but they are affordable. For example, a food handler's class in our state costs $45.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
The CDC's website covers topics such as disease outbreaks, foodborne illnesses, workplace safety, food recalls and food safety. It also addresses topics that relate to employee health and safety, such as flu shots, avoiding the common cold, preventing falls and common workplace hazards.
Food Safety, Department of Health – State-Sponsored Websites
Each state and county posts food safety information provided by the local Department of Health (often this is a county agency).
You can also find paid online courses offering various certifications for managers and employees. Alison, StateFoodSafety, National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), Learn2Serve, ServSafe, TAP Series and SCS Global Services are just a few organizations that offer online and in-person classes.
What You Should Do If You Have an Incident
Hopefully, this never happens to your restaurant, but in the event it does, you need to be prepared. Even a false claim of food poisoning can have a dramatic impact on your business. Therefore, you need to have a plan in place and act quickly.
Many large food chains implement an incident plan and practice it regularly so they know exactly how to respond if an incident occurs. Even small restaurants can benefit from instituting and practicing a response routine. Start your practice scenario with that first phone call, which could be from your local health department. You should know exactly how to handle concerns and precisely identify where and when the problem may have occurred.
Even if no one can prove that your restaurant is at fault, you should voluntarily implement actions as if it did occur. This demonstrates due diligence and a commitment to your customers' health.
The government agencies that are typically involved when an outbreak occurs include your local health department and possibly the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
If an incident is covered by the press or spread by social media, you will need to publicly respond. Prepare your responses carefully. Be honest about the measures you've taken and the practices you’re implementing to prevent future problems. Some incidents may require you to purchase new equipment and/or provide additional training for employees. Be professional in your communications with the press and public and show that your restaurant is capable of supporting the highest food safety and hygiene standards.
Don't Neglect the Front of House
Even if a customer contracts an illness from another customer (or staff member), they will most likely blame the food. The back of house is not the only area of your restaurant where cleanliness matters.
Keeping the tables and bathroom clean at all times is obviously important, but there are other areas you should schedule into your regular cleaning rotation, including the following:
- Items on the tables: Salt, pepper, napkin dispensers, condiment dispensers, tablecloths, seats, the backs and tops of chairs, under the table (gum), menus that stay on the table, wine and beer lists, touchscreen devices, sugar and cream containers
- Doors and entryways: Doorknobs and locks, windows, entire doors, railings, window wells, waiting areas, door windows, light switches
- Wait staff items: Card signing boards, PIN keypads, pens, menus, serving trays, tableside payment processing devices, signature pads, check holders, cash registers and keyboards, touchscreen devices
- Anything a child might touch: High chairs, booster seats, play areas, crayons, toys
Commonly Overlooked Food Safety Issues
Despite your best efforts, contamination or unsafe situations may still occur. Each year, 1 in 6 Americans get sick from over 250 different foodborne disease-causing microbes, according to the CDC. Even when you think you are doing everything correctly, these are a few commonly overlooked items that could potentially lead to problems:
- Ambient temperature of cold storage areas exceeding 41 degrees Fahrenheit: Overstacking food items, frequent opening of doors, too little space between items, food stored on the floor and more can cause perishable food items to be warmer than recommended temperatures.
- Cooling pans too deep to properly chill food items: Sometimes cooling pans are overfilled, which results in there not being enough contact between the food and cold baths. Checking the temperature of these food items should be routine.
- False readings from non-calibrated thermometers: According to Restaurant News, nearly one-third of food thermometer readings are incorrect. Regularly test and calibrate your food thermometers.
- Failure to wash prepared items: Many restaurants take the extra precaution to wash prepared fruit and vegetables rather than relying on the vendor to wash produce properly.
- Lack of sanitation practices for the ice machine: You may often see (and not even think about) an ice scoop thrown into the ice bin after an employee handles the scoop with their hands. Treat ice as a ready-serve food item and establish sanitation routines for the machines and the utensils that come in contact with them.
- Neglecting to store and handle bar food items at recommended temperatures: Often bartenders prepare drink garnishes at the bar rather than in a sanitized food-prep area. These types of food items can be left out for prolonged periods. Require your bar staff to store and prepare garnishes and other food items the same way as any other food item you serve. Ensure items are stored at the proper temperature, that employees prepare these items using safe food-handling techniques, and change food out every four hours or less.
- Failure to keep self-service areas clean: Health experts recommend offering packaged utensils to avoid customers touching another person's utensils, but you could just have your server provide utensils tableside to avoid this issue. Clean your self-service area frequently.
- Not ensuring that common allergens are isolated from food-prep areas: Some restaurants dedicate separate prep areas and utensils for patrons with food allergies to avoid the risk of contamination. Others avoid using common allergens in prepared items, such as marinades, dressings and garnishes. It is also recommended that you have full ingredient lists available for your customers.
- Neglect of barbecue and meat-smoking machines: There are ways to keep this equipment safe while imparting great flavors. You'll benefit from researching the best ways to keep these items safe.
- Failure to keep drink nozzles clean: Many restaurants fail to clean soda, tea urn and bar nozzles. Not keeping these items clean not only affects the taste of beverages, it endangers your guests.
Keeping your restaurant clean and your customers safe is no easy task. It requires establishing routines and due diligence on the part of every restaurant employee. Once you have created comprehensive sanitation and food safety practices, you'll need to follow through with oversight and careful record keeping. You'll also want to make adjustments along the way. And if an incident occurs, you'll benefit from having a plan in place. In addition to this guide, you'll find volumes of information online to help you with your ongoing training.
Written by Pamela Stevens