September 1, 2014 |

Food Safety 101

By Daniel P. Smith

hand washing_0060Building a safe food culture in your establishment


For the last 37 years, Pizza Wheel has been charming the folks of 8,200-resident Bellevue, Ohio, with quality pizza and friendly service. In that time, Pizza Wheel has also been charming another group: the county’s health inspectors.

Last year, the 25-seat pizzeria captured the Gold Plate Award from Huron County Public Health, recognition bestowed upon local foodservice establishments that score 90 or higher on two annual inspections and avoid any administrative actions or foodborne illness outbreaks over the previous two years.

Pizza Wheel owner Jenny Laird says the honor underscores her team’s commitment to food safety and acknowledgement of food safety’s critical importance.

“We’re feeding our neighbors, our families and our friends, so food safety is a definite top priority,” Laird says.

In today’s social-media charged, always-connected world, food safety has gained mounting attention from both industry insiders as well as consumers. Though often labeled esoteric and uninspiring — not necessarily inaccurate characterizations — food safety is nevertheless central to the success and sustainability of any restaurant enterprise, outweighing even the hippest servers, the most fashionable interior design and the sharpest marketing.

“If you’re not serving safe food, then you won’t be serving food at all,” says David Crownover, project manager with the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) ServSafe program.

Indeed, when a pizzeria fails to provide safe food, the results can be unforgiving — from fines to closure. In particular, critical violations, such as contaminted food or improper cooking and cooling methods sparking illness, can weaken a shop’s brand equity, threatening its ability to attract customers and even employees.

“Sometimes, you’re just done,” says Julie Garden-Robinson, a food and nutrition specialist at North Dakota State University’s extension program and a certified food safety trainer.

The restaurant industry’s traditionally high turnover rates, which range from 80-130 percent by some estimates, as well as food arriving from various sources and destinations certainly challenges any operation’s food safety objectives. Even so, Crownover calls food safety “one of the easiest variables” operators can control in their establishment when thorough training programs and a top-down food safety culture exist. At Pizza Wheel, for instance, Laird explains and demonstrates the pizzeria’s food safety practices to each new hire and instructs that the shop’s guidelines are non-negotiable.

“The organizations that take training seriously and make food safety a significant part of their onboarding process are often those that are also the most successful,” Crownover says. “Operators have to live and breathe food safety themselves and show staff just how important this issue is.”

To build a culture around food safety, Garden-Robinson suggests operators establish their own routine assessments based on local health inspections. This, she says, will help staff learn proper food safety practices, reinforce the issue’s importance on an ongoing basis and establish prudent habits to keep guests safe and inspectors satisfied.

After all, Garden-Robinson reminds, “It only takes one worker to create an outbreak and potentially disastrous results.”

During internal inspections and in training, Garden-Robinson urges operators to focus on two critical areas: employee hygiene and cross-contamination.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control shows food handlers are the No. 1 contributor to foodborne illnesses, Crownover says. Specifically, he calls handwashing “a massive issue.” While most identify handwashing with the restroom, Crownover reminds handwashing is equally important when food handlers are prepping products, particularly when handling goods that pose a cross-contamination threat, such as raw chicken or meat.

“This goes beyond being a taskmaster and the police; you need to be an educator as well,” Crownover says.

In fast-paced kitchen environments, Garden-Robinson acknowledges the omnipresent prospect of cross-contamination. She notes the importance of separating ready-to-eat products from raw goods and using sanitized utensils and cutting boards when preparing foods. Operations should be particularly mindful of handling any goods that are served to customers without a kill step, such as salad or raw vegetables.

RIC_prep_0311“A lot of people will spend time looking at the ceiling, plumbing and floors and, while those areas are important, it’s the areas where cross-contamination are most possible that typically demand the most attention,” Garden-Robinson says.

Cross-contamination also applies to allergens, an especially apropos topic given the number of pizzerias now serving gluten-free pies.

“You need to know your allergens and your menu,” Garden-Robinson says, adding that operators should establish specialized cleaning processes or devote specific equipment to address allergen issues.

At Pizza Wheel, Laird also makes sure staff date and rotate product, all of which they know should be stored below 42 degrees.

“My staff all know the number 42 and I tell them, ‘When it doubt, throw it out,’” says Laird, who has also replaced faltering equipment and installed extra thermostats in her fridge as well, shrewd investments to advance her shop’s food safety culture.

Beyond employees and in-store procedures around hygiene and cross-contamination, operators must also analyze their purchasing. From flour and cheese to meat, Garden-Robinson suggests operators secure product specs from vendors, including microbiological testing and lab analysis. She also recommends operators investigate if vendors, particularly prospective partners, have had any previous instances of foodborne illnesses.

Vendors’ “food safety practices are as important as your own,” Garden-Robinson says.


Knowledge is power: Food safety resources for restaurant operators and staff

The National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe program remains the industry’s premier food safety training ground. The organization’s flagship program provides food safety education to foodservice managers online and in classrooms taught by certified instructors. Upon completion, students earn ServSafe Food Protection Manager Certification. In some states, a restaurant must have at least one certified food protection manager on staff; in others, states require one credentialed person per shift.

ServSafe also offers food handler training, which Project Manager David Crownover describes as a cost-effective way to help restaurants onboard new employees and teach food safety basics, such as personal hygiene, time and temperature, sanitation and cross-contamination.

In addition to ServSafe’s offerings, many land-grant universities have online and classroom extension programs devoted to food safety. North Dakota State University, for instance, hosts a food safety program specifically for teens. To date, more than 10,000 students have passed through the program and received hands-on training in cooking and safe food service.

Chicago-based writer Daniel P. Smith has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers and magazines.