The weather is heating up and everyone is eating out. Summer foods like strawberries, asparagus, and oysters are on the menu and brimming with flavor. Because the food is in season, there’s no concern about contamination, right? Maybe that’s true, but maybe not. Let’s play to a little game of Food Safety Truth or Dare to find out more.
TRUTH OR DARE: My restaurant has 100% compliance on handwashing.
TRUTH: My employees are dedicated and well-trained.
THE FACTS: Handwashing is one of the most frequently cited violations in health inspector’s reports. This includes employees not washing their hands, lack of handwashing supplies, blocked access to sinks, or the absence of a dedicated handwashing basin. All leading to a recipe for contamination.
Figure 1. Healthinspectorsnotebook.blogspot.com post detailing Conditional Pass infractions.
A recent CDC Study investigated how restaurant traits, policies, and practices were linked to foodborne illness outbreaks and to infected food workers as the cause of outbreaks. State and local environmental health specialists evaluated 22 outbreak restaurants and 347 non-outbreak restaurants. Outbreaks of norovirus were the most common (45%). And the most frequent causes of outbreaks were infected food workers (65%) and workers touching food with their bare hands (35%).
TRUTH OR DARE: My food prep equipment is free of contamination.
DARE: Go ahead, test my equipment!
THE FACTS: Just because they look clean, doesn’t mean they are clean. In a FDA study, over 63% of full service restaurants surveyed were found to be out of compliance when it comes to cleaning and sanitizing food-contact surfaces and utensils. Equipment contamination from raw animal products or environmental conditions led to the next three out of compliance categories, ranging from 27% to 43%.
Figure 2. FDA Study detailing contaminated equipment test results in full service restaurants. Link to Study
TRUTH OR DARE: I use fresh, organic produce to protect my customers from illness.
DARE: It’s safe, you can eat the produce directly out of the container.
THE FACTS: Fresh and organic doesn’t translate to being free from foodborne illnesses. Food Safety News has been tracking the story of Taylor Farms Organic Kale Medley Power Greens which was found to be contaminated with Salmonella. Although, there is controversy regarding the handling of the outbreak, there is no question as to the source. Clearly, neither fresh nor organic served as protection from contamination in this case.
Image Source: Link
TRUTH OR DARE: My oysters come from local farms so they’re safe.
TRUTH: My supplier has the best quality product in the area. Even I eat them raw.
THE FACTS: Even local, high-end suppliers can experience contamination. Barfblog.com reported in early 2016 that Oregon Oyster Farms Inc. of Newport, Oregon issued a voluntary recall of fresh shucked oysters sold in New York and Massachusetts. The oysters were found to be contaminated with norovirus. Seventeen people were made ill and one was hospitalized after eating the oysters. Public health officials and the Oregon Department of Agriculture are working to determine the exact source of the contamination, including investigating whether the contamination occurred in the oyster beds or after harvesting. Eating raw shellfish is popular, especially in the summer, but inherently there are risks involved.
TRUTH OR DARE: There’s nothing I can do to keep my customers from becoming
TRUTH: Given these stories, I’m helpless from preventing outbreaks.
THE FACTS: A 100% guarantee will never be possible. But restaurants can do a lot to prevent contamination and foodborne illness outbreaks.
As seen above, diligent handwashing and regular equipment sanitization are important factors. Policies that encourage and don’t penalize restaurant workers from calling in sick have also been shown to reduce outbreaks. Proper cooking is also important. In many cases, ensuring food is heated to the proper temperature will kill harmful microorganisms. For fresh produce, like lettuce or carrots, there are sanitizers, such as those described in Barfblog.com, that can help remove harmful bacteria.
Microorganisms grow best in warmer conditions. Proper storage and refrigeration helps keep them at bay. But, refrigerators and freezers can fail or doors can accidentally be left open. That’s why it’s important to have a temperature monitoring system in place to alert you if they become too warm.
Food Safety is not a game. Diligence and robust HACCP plans that are enforced and reviewed regularly make a difference. Training and more training helps too. Particularly, if employees understand the benefits and are given the time and resources to put the training into practice.
Summer indeed brings a bounty of fresh products. Insuring they are tasty, is the job of the chef and the kitchen staff. Insuring they are safe, is everyone’s job.