According to the World Health Organization industrialized countries are reporting that the percentage of their population suffering from a foodborne disease each year is up to 30%. Even if just a portion of that percentage is directly tied to unsafe food handling practices restaurants must be keenly aware of their safe food handling practices. The FDA reports that food being stored or cooked at improper temperatures & times was the number one food safety problem restaurants are failing to address. This was followed by chemical contamination, equipment contamination, poor personal hygiene, and inadequate cooking to round out the top 5 food handling food safety issues. This article will address food handling challenges as they relate to each step from delivery to consumption within a food establishment and detail specific solutions and tools to reduce the chances of food contamination by poor food handling practices.
From delivery to consumption food handlers are challenged with some common problems in fighting food contamination. These common problems include:
- Identifying foods that require time and temperature control
- Limiting the food’s length of time while passing through what the FDA calls the temperature danger zone (41 (4 C) and 135 (60 C) degrees Fahrenheit) where bacteria can thrive
- Avoiding cross contamination
These problems all need to be addressed while maintaining accurate records of food temperature, environment temperature and inventory. These accurate records ensure that restaurants comply with food safety standards, that they deliver safe food to their customers and they provide valuable documented backup that safety procedures were in place and followed. Time/temperature control for safety foods, or TCS foods as it is commonly referred to in the industry, are those foods that can support and grow potentially dangerous microorganisms that can cause foodborne disease. Restaurant management is responsible for training its employees on the identification of these foods and the procedures to follow in order to avoid contamination throughout the food’s lifecycle at the establishment. TCS foods are food items that typically have a neutral pH or acidity level, such as lemons and limes, and a higher water activity measurement. Water activity is a calculation of the amount of water in a food that is available to organisms to thrive. A food’s water activity level typically increases with temperature. For example a frozen piece of meat has a lower water activity level than thawed raw meat. It is important for food handlers to be able to identify TCS foods and accurately use tools such as room and product thermometers to avoid time and temperature dangers. According to the FDA most bacteria can multiply more rapidly within a food’s temperature danger zone of 41 (4 C) and 135 (60 C) degrees Fahrenheit. This means that consistent food and environmental temperature checks and recordings play a critical role in safe food handling. Cross contamination, as in the transfer of bacteria from one contaminated food (usually raw) to another, is another common problem for restaurants. Cross contamination can happen directly, indirectly or through fluid drippings. Direct contamination happens when one food touches another and indirect contamination happens when the same cutting board for example is used for different foods. Contamination by dripping results when one food’s fluids drip onto another food due to poor storage or poor food placement.
Food contamination takes a deep financial toll on countries in medical costs and loss of productivity costs. The World Health Organization estimated that medical and lost productivity costs associated with food contamination where $35 billion annually (1997) in the United States alone. Poor food handling procedures within a restaurant can cost the establishment significant loss of revenue should poor procedures result in disease, illness or death. This outcome could lead to loss of reputation, a loss of customers, lower profits, fines, lawsuits, or even closure of the business as in the example of the Ruby Chinese Restaurant in Toronto. In late 2009 the restaurant’s owners, after 17 years in business, filed for bankruptcy and closed the business after 22 people became ill with salmonella poisoning. The outbreak took place within a two week time period and brought down this previously successful restaurant with this one incident. Should an establishment manage to stay open after failure to meet food safety regulations, legislation and inspections they may still be required to spend additional money on fees from citations or to repair items cited in the violation. It is therefore very important for restaurants to pro-actively invest upfront in training, equipment and tools to avoid the more excessive cost of even one case of food contamination.
FROM DELIVERY TO CONSUMPTION
As food makes its way through the restaurant process each stage has its own set of problems, safe practices and tools to ensure safe food delivery to the consumer.
Purchase and Delivery
The food handling problems during purchasing and delivery include the chance that the food product is contaminated either at the food source, during the delivery or during transportation to the restaurant. In order to avoid these problems it is wise to choose reputable suppliers with a history of producing clean properly packaged food. The supplier should also use a reputable delivery company that operates temperature controlled vehicles that are clean and maintain the appropriate temperatures for the various foods. These transportation companies use temperature recording devices and data loggers that can provide detailed information on the food’s temperature in transit from the grower to delivery. Having this information verifies that the TCS food was transported and delivered at the correct temperature range for that food item. According to the National Environmental Health Association nearly all TCS food should be held at or below 41 (4 C) degrees Fahrenheit.
At delivery food handlers should visually inspect product. It is advisable to check frozen and chilled foods for signs of damage, contamination or in transit temperature fluctuations. Checking the temperature at delivery can be accomplished with a variety of thermometers including probe, thermocouple and infrared laser thermometers. Packaged foods can be tested quickly without damaging the packaging by placing the thermometer between packages. Unwrapped foods can be tested by inserting the probe at the thickest part of the food. Surface temperature can be scanned using infrared laser thermometers. In addition to temperature checks the receiving employee should make note of date labels, inspection stamps as appropriate and the condition of the truck and driver.
On receipt NEHA recommends that TCS foods should be stored within 15 minutes to avoid the possibility of bacterial contamination. Typically restaurant storage areas include refrigerators, freezers and a location for dry storage. In each case the establishment is further advised by NEHA to practice the stock rotation method of first in first out or FIFO as it is commonly referred to. This will ensure that foods that have been stored the longest are used first and will avoided spoilage. Food should ideally be stored on slated shelves at least 6 inches off the floor. The 6 inch clearing will allow for easy cleaning and will discourage pests while the slated shelves will assist in air circulation. Open food should be stored in covered containers and raw foods should be stored under cooked or ready-to-eat foods to avoid cross contamination (such as dripping). All food should be properly marked and dated and at no time should chemicals be stored in the same area as food.
Refrigerated foods are stored in a variety of different refrigeration storage areas. These can be as simple as a standalone reach-in refrigerator or a larger walk-in or walk-through refrigeration room. Different foods require storage at different temperatures. For example, NEHA recommends storing fresh meat between 32 (0 C) and 41 (4 C) degrees Fahrenheit at a humidity level between 85 and 90 percent and fresh poultry between 30 (-1.1 C) and 36 (2 C) degrees Fahrenheit at a humidity level between 75 and 86 percent. The refrigeration unit’s environment should be checked for the proper temperature whenever it is used. This can be achieved by manually checking the unit’s internal thermometer or automatically accomplished with wide area temperature monitoring and alarm systems. The actual food temperatures should be checked at the beginning of the day and the end of the day and whenever there is a temperature fluctuation within the refrigeration unit. This can be accomplished by performing spot checks using either probe or infrared thermometers. Monitoring both ambient and food temperatures is necessary from a safety perspective and keeping accurate records of these temperatures is vital for restaurants to comply with federal, state and local regulations as well as documenting compliance for their own safety procedures.
Freezers keep frozen food at 0 (-17.7 C) degrees Fahrenheit or below. At this temperature foods can have a much longer shelf life. Fresh meat for example stored at 0 (-17.7 C) degrees Fahrenheit can last several months. The freezer temperature should be checked daily and should be defrosted regularly if it is not a frost free unit. Temperature controls and equipment such as wireless temperature monitoring systems or data loggers should be used to verify consistent temperature ranges.
Dry storage is used for items not requiring refrigeration such as foods packaged in cans, bottles and bags. NEHA recommends that the dry storage area should ideally be maintained at a temperature between 50 (10 C) and 70 (21 C) degrees Fahrenheit at a humidity level of 50 to 60 percent. This will ensure that the food shelf life is maximized. Thermometers, temperature control systems or wireless temperature monitoring systems are used for maintaining and recording consistent temperatures. These tools should be monitored on a regular basis. Additionally, dry storage ideally should be windowless as sunlight can affect the quality of some foods.
The natural next step in food’s life cycle within a food establishment is the preparation stage prior to cooking. Issues during this stage include proper thawing techniques (if required), employee hygiene (including proper hand washing), separation of raw and ready-to-eat product and equipment, sanitization and most importantly minimizing the food’s time in the temperature danger zone (between 41 (4 C) and 135 (60 C) degrees Fahrenheit).
Thawing foods properly prior to food preparation is critical as improper techniques can result in the growth of dangerous bacteria. When frozen foods are stored bacteria can still be present. If a food is left to thaw at temperatures that fall in the food temperature danger zone bacteria have the potential to thrive and multiply. To properly thaw food restaurants should use one of several FDA recommended thawing techniques. These techniques are thawing in a refrigerator, thawing under running cold water, thawing in a microwave or by immediately cooking the frozen item. It is also recommended while using the refrigerator method that the refrigerator’s temperature during thawing never exceed 41 (4 C) degrees Fahrenheit. Internal temperature gauges should be used to monitor consistent refrigerator temperature.
One of the most critical issues when discussing food handling is the role of employee hygiene. The human hand carries millions of bacteria at any given time. Food handlers must not only frequently wash their hands but should also use hand sanitizing solutions developed using appropriate safe ingredients as they will likely come in contact with food during the course of the day. Employers should pay particular attention to ensuring employees actually know the proper procedure for washing hands. NEHA has available guidelines detailing effective hand washing procedures which includes washing hands for a minimum of 20 seconds. Additional hygiene concerns include wearing clean cooking/preparation attire such as aprons and gloves with minimal use of jewelry to reduce the chance of food contamination.
During the preparation process danger lies in possible cross contamination. Bacteria can be present not only on foods and employees but on cutting boards, counter tops and equipment. Care should be taken to clean and sanitize these types of surfaces as they are used in a “clean as you go” method. The use of cleaning cloths and paper towels with hot water and soap is advised to clean these types of work surfaces. Whenever possible, separate items should be used for the different types of foods such as separate cutting boards and utensils for red meat versus poultry or fish. Cleaning cloths should be regularly laundered in washing machines. Cookware should be sanitized using hot water and/or chlorine or other sanitization chemical such as quaternary ammonium solutions in a 3 sink set up, warewasher or dishwashing machine. Chlorine or quaternary ammonium test strips are used to test that the appropriate level of chemical is being used in the sanitization process. Waterproof thermometers are needed to verify and quantify the temperature of the final rinse temperature in commercial warewashers and dishwashers.
All raw foods and in particular animal products and by-products have the potential for harboring dangerous bacteria. The only way to ensure the destruction of these bacteria is by cooking them to a set internal temperature for a specific period of time. As examples, the FDA Food Code states that poultry requires an internal temperature of 165 (73.8 C) degrees Fahrenheit held for 15 seconds whereas a pork roast requires an internal temperature of 145 (62.7 C) degrees Fahrenheit held for 3 minutes. Restaurant management must ensure that cook staff know and adhere to these requirements by using the appropriate monitoring and testing equipment. Cooks need access to and possibly instruction on the use of different temperature testing tools such as probe, bimetal and infrared thermometers.
In addition to monitoring internal temperatures the cook staff must follow all food handling safety protocols by cleaning and sanitizing equipment and utensils as detailed in the previous preparation section. Thermometers used during the cooking process must be sanitized after each use. Alcohol wipes are needed for this purpose. Other food safety procedures include covering pots while not being stirred and using the proper pan size on a similar sized burner to ensure bacteria is destroyed around the edges.
Cooling, Reheating and Holding
Cooling, reheating and holding all carry the potential for contamination as food must again pass through the food’s temperature danger zone. After foods are cooked leftover food must be cooled properly before returned to refrigeration. TCS food must be cooled as quickly as possible to avoid contamination. The FDA’s Food Code recommends that TCS food be cooled from 140 (60 C) to 70 (21.1 C) degrees Fahrenheit within 2 hours and then from 70 (21.1 C) to 41 (4 C) degrees Fahrenheit within an additional 4 hours. This process requires handlers to either monitor the process manually with probe, bi metal or infrared thermometers or use automated heat/cool monitoring thermometers. These specialized automated thermometers can issue an alarm if the food does not conform to the FDA Food Code cool down times or display a visual pass indicator notification if the food cools properly. Once food has reached 70 degrees Fahrenheit it can then be transferred to a refrigerator for the additional cooling. To speed up cooling there are several other food handling methods available. Transferring food to shallow pans will help disperse the heat as will using a cooling paddle to stir the hot food. Using stainless steel as containers and placing containers in an ice bath are also effective methods of cooling food. Food handlers must verify that the foods are cooled properly prior to moving them back into storage.
Similarly with reheating and holding TCS foods must pass through the temperature danger zone quickly to avoid contamination. Cooked food to be re-heated for consumption per the FDA’s Food Code specifications should be rapidly re-heated to an internal temperature of 165 (73.8 C) degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds within two hours. Using the proper equipment to monitor internal temperature is required. Probe and bi metal thermometers are ideal for this purpose. Additionally, appropriate equipment such as pre-heated steam tables, warming trays of cooling baths/tubs must be utilized to hold either hot or cold foods. When holding hot foods temperatures must be consistently monitored by spot checking with thermometers and the food must be regularly stirred to maintain the proper serving temperatures.
When serving food it is vital that food handlers practice and adhere to strict hygiene procedures. Employees should be trained in proper hand washing practices and must not only frequently wash their hands but ensure that hand washing always happens after activities such as touching human body parts, using the restroom, coughing, sneezing or cleaning. To reduce the chance of food contamination food handlers must, as mentioned previously, wear clean clothing, secure long hair or use appropriate hair netting as appropriate as well as minimizing the use of jewelry.
Additional food handling procedures to reduce contamination includes handling utensils and serving equipment with minimal hand contact. Food handlers should hold glasses by their base, plates by their outer rims or bottom, serve ice with tongs and use other serving equipment by handles if available. Food handlers must also wash their hands after handling dirty tableware.
Serving food in a self serving setting has its own set of food handling issues. Food must be presented using proper equipment that is cleaned often and keeps food at the proper temperature. Per FDA Food Code guidelines cold food must be kept below 41 (4 C) degrees Fahrenheit and hot food must be monitored to remain at or above a temperature of 135 (60 C) degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures need to be monitored frequently with appropriate bi metal or probe thermometers and food should be stirred often to help maintain a consistent temperature throughout the serving bin. Additionally, sneeze guards must be in place to prevent food contamination by customers. Clean and sanitized utensils must be used and each food must have its own serving utensil kept in the food as opposed to being placed on a plate beside the serving dish. Food handlers must clean thoroughly and often and offer customers a clean plate for additional trips to the self service station.
Summary of Tools
There are a variety of tools available to food handlers to assist them in keeping food free of contamination including sanitization tools and temperature monitoring tools. One of a food handler’s biggest challenges is ensuring that food is maintained at the correct temperature throughout its life cycle from delivery to consumption. Following is a summary of tools available for each stage in the food delivery, preparation and serving process.
Purchase and Delivery
On receipt and delivery food handlers must accept and verify that the food they are receiving is being delivered in the best condition possible. This means that refrigerated and frozen foods must have maintained a set temperature in transit and the restaurant receiver on delivery should be able to verify food temperatures. Tools for temperature monitoring and recording during delivery are listed below.
- In-transit recorders and data loggers are used in transport to monitor and record the temperature inside the delivery vehicle. These recorders provide a good history of the food’s quality of transport. DeltaTRAK’s FlashLink CT Data Loggers provide this type of precise easy to read temperature monitoring for both in transit or storage use.
- On delivery digital probe thermometers such as the FlashCheck thermometers from DeltaTRAK can be used between packages to spot check for temperature. The receiver can simply place the probe between two packages of product to verify that the food received is within the acceptable specifications or the probe can be used to pierce product directly to obtain a food’s internal temperature.
- In 2011 new technology will be available that will allow probe thermometers to record temperatures that can then be automatically uploaded to a DeltaTRAK wireless monitoring system. This will allow the user to fully automate the temperature record keeping process.
- Infrared thermometers such as DeltaTRAK’s ThermoTrace thermometers use infrared laser technology to spot check surfaces of packages and foods without contact for quick temperature monitoring. Receivers can quickly spot check incoming cold products for instance by aiming the laser at various packages or foods within a truck’s cab to verify temperature compliance.
Once product has been received the foods move into storage where TCS foods require temperature sensitive spaces that need to be monitored. Tools to help handlers monitor storage temperature are listed below.
- Digital probe thermometers such as FlashCheck thermometers can be used to pierce food or be placed between packages in a storage area to determine that products remain at proper holding temperatures. A reduced probe tip provides a faster reading response and the larger LCD display makes it easier to read. FlashCheck thermometers’ automatic calibration technology allows the user to calibrate the thermometers in the field.
- Non contact Infrared thermometers such as the ThermoTrace thermometers quickly and accurately record temperatures from a distance or in hard to reach areas such as refrigerated cases or other cold storage areas.
- Digital probe thermometers such as DeltaTRAK’s FlashCheck Lollipop thermometer with the capability to record minimum and maximum temperatures can be left in a room or storage to record temperatures. This feature allows handlers to automatically record an area such as a freezer or refrigerator’s minimum and maximum temperature over time to verify proper temperature consistency.
- Min/Max alarm digital thermometers with external probes that can be placed within the storage unit allowing the digital display to remain outside for better visibility. DeltaTRAK’s Min/Max Alarm Thermometers are intended for freezers, salad bars, display cases and refrigerators and can be programmed to sound an alarm at any set temperature to notify handlers of temperature fluctuations.
- Wireless facility monitoring, recording and alarm systems such as DeltaTRAK’s FlashLink Wireless environmental system can track temperature and humidity around the clock. The automated wireless system can be programmed to notify personnel if the storage environment temperature falls out of the acceptable temperature range. The Flashlink Wireless System’s alarm technology reduces the chance of accidental temperature malfunctions that could result in loss of valuable product.
Preparation, Cooking and Serving
There are many tools that help food handlers ensure food safety during the preparation, cooking and serving stages. According to the USDA 1 out of 4 hamburgers turns brown prior to reaching a safe internal temperature. Relying on texture and color are not sufficient methods of determining if food has reached the recommended internal temperature and is safe to eat. Temperature monitoring tools are recommended. Temperature monitoring tools for preparation, cooking and serving are listed below.
- Monitoring units to test cooking services are available such as DeltaTRAK’s Digital Thermocouple Thermometer available with specialized probes for checking surfaces, air/gas as well as standard penetration probes for checking foods.
- During preparation, cooking and serving FlashCheck digital probe thermometers are used to check raw food, food in the process of cooking, cooked or cooling foods. They are ideal for checking food at any stage of the cooking and serving process. FlashCheck thermometers use a stainless steel reduced tip that allows for a faster recording time and the ability to more easily check thin mass foods such as a fillet of fish.
- Infrared thermometers such as ThermoTrace thermometers are perfect for testing extremely hot surfaces. During preparation and cooking food handlers or cooks can test for example a hot grill to verify it is the right temperature to be used.
- Bimetal thermometers are cost effective thermometers used to monitor foods during preparation, cooking and serving. Often referred to as pocket dial thermometers they can be used for example during cooking to monitor hot liquids or during serving to monitor foods on a self serve line.
- FlashCheck Lollipop Min/Max probe thermometers are used to check foods by probing or leaving in refrigerators, freezers, or hot holding areas to record minimum and maximum temperatures. These waterproof thermometers can also be used in dishwashers to verify and quantify the temperature of the final rinse temperature in commercial warewashers and dishwashers.
- DeltaTRAK’s Min/Max Digital Alarm Thermometers with the capability to record minimum and maximum temperatures are very useful in monitoring salad bars, display cases and water tanks where the probe is placed inside an area while the display remains outside for full visibility. They can also be set to emit an alarm if the temperatures fall out of the set parameters.
- DeltaTRAK’s Heat/Cool Thermometer provides full automation of monitoring and temperature during cooking and/or cool down periods. These thermometers are ideal for ensuring that foods cool down to the specific FDA Food Code specifications for cooling and re-heating foods.
Sanitization tools allow food handlers to prepare and serve food free of microorganisms detrimental to consumers. Sanitization tools for these stages are listed below and include wipes, testing strips, temperature labels and dishwasher thermometers.
- FlashCheck Lollipop Min/Max waterproof probe thermometers can also be used in to verify and quantify the temperature of the final rinse temperature in commercial warewashers and dishwashers.
- DeltaTRAK Chlorine Test papers are used to ensure that the appropriate level of chlorine is being used in low temperature dishwashers to sanitize cookware and utensils. These chlorine test papers are used by dipping the paper into the water/chlorine solution and comparing the color results against a level chart.
- DeltaTRAK Quat Ammonium Test Papers are used in sinks and dishwashers to test quaternary ammonium solutions to confirm correct concentration of the chemical in the sanitization of cooking utensils and cookware. These test strips work in the same manner as the chlorine papers to confirm the chemical’s appropriate concentration level.
- DeltaTRAK TempDot High Temp Thermolabels are self adhesive labels that can be adhered to plates. The plates with labels are run through a high temperature dishwasher where the label will change color when/if the temperature reaches the FDA Food Code (2009) specification of 160 degrees Fahrenheit needed to sanitize the items during final rinse. Tempdots confirm that the item itself within the dishwasher has reached the proper temperature for sanitization.
- Alcohol wipes are available for use in sanitizing thermometers. As thermometers are used in the cooking, testing and monitoring of food they must be sanitized between each use so as to avoid cross contamination.
Handling food safely requires a conscientious effort on behalf of the food handler to abide by the food establishment’s safety protocols. Each step in the food handling process within a restaurant has its own set of challenges. Of all the factors that contribute to foodborne illness monitoring time and temperature of the food during each step is critical to minimizing the chance of food contamination. Food handlers should be familiar with the tools available for temperature recording and have and adhere to a specific plan to monitor and record food temperature throughout each stage from transportation to consumption.
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