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5 Food Safety Mistakes You Don't Want Your Kitchen Staff Making

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These errors are too costly to make
By Ron Harrison April 2017 Expert Insights

Restaurant owners and operators understand the challenge of keeping a culture of cleanliness in their kitchen. Good routines and habits can be difficult to reinforce, but it’s important as errors in kitchen sanitation can lead to contaminated food and poor, or even failed health inspections.

A concern that’s often forgotten when it comes to foodborne outbreaks are pests. Pests such as flies, rodents, and cockroaches transmit pathogens and allergens that can irritate the human system. For a look at how serious the effects of pests can be, consider the following:

  • Flies transmit more than 100 known pathogens, including E. coli, salmonella, staphylococcus, Clostridium, Bacillus, and shingles. Flies can leave behind pathogens when they touch a surface and are a major threat to food safety.
  • Rats and mice can transmit pathogens, such as salmonella, when their droppings come into contact with food, food utensils and prep surfaces.
  • Cockroaches threaten food safety by carrying and transmitting organisms, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, which can cause food poisoning, diarrhea, dysentery, and other uncomfortable ailments.
  • Foreign objects, such as rat hairs or insect body parts, can contaminate food. Such contaminants can cause gastrointestinal discomfort, emotional, and psychological distress in some individuals.

To help prevent pests in your establishment and avoid a situation that could lead to a foodborne outbreak at your establishment, be sure to take the necessary measures to keep cleanliness a top priority. Below are the top five food safety mistakes you don’t want your kitchen staff making.

1. Improper Hand Washing
Surprisingly, U.S. food workers practice proper hand washing only 25 percent of the time, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It doesn’t take long to properly wash hands, but the fast-paced restaurant environment tempts food workers to continually cut corners to make up time. But the harsh reality is those who don’t thoroughly wash their hands can transmit foodborne illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports one in six Americans suffers from foodborne illness every year. Are your employees washing their hands properly? The following outlines the simple routine recommended by the CDC:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a 20-second timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air-dry them.

2. Insufficient Labeling
It’s important that when you cook food and store it, you label it properly with a date. Labels should include the time the food was made because that determines when it should be thrown out. Remember the golden rule: “When in doubt, throw it out.” It won’t always be easy, but it’s less expensive to dispose of any ambiguously labeled product than it is to recover from an in-house outbreak of foodborne illness. Seems like a no brainer, but shockingly, an FDA study of date marking in food operations found out-of-compliance rates as high as 81 percent in restaurants and other food storage facilities. Out-of-date foods are extremely vulnerable to pest infestations and may attract flies, rodents, or cockroaches to your business, greatly increasing your odds of contamination.

Next time you meet with your kitchen staff, train them to correctly label food by using the following best practices from the FDA:

  • Label food with “best if used by (or before)” date recommendation for best flavor or quality.
  • Include the “use-by” date set by the manufacturer as the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.
  • Practice “first in, first out” (FIFO) as a general rule.
  • Discard any food that has gone beyond one to seven days, depending on the type of food it is and whether you still have its original packaging with the expiration date.
  • Throw out prepared foods in one to three days. Expiration dates are harder to determine for food that’s been prepared in the kitchen. When a dish is prepared, it’s mixed with other ingredients and the original packaging is discarded. That’s why labeling food with prepared dates is so important. A good rule of thumb is to throw out prepared foods in one to three days.

3. Eating on the Job
Pests are constantly looking for water, food, and shelter, so any crumb left behind will be enough to attract them inside your establishment. Do your employees know that eating in food prep areas is a health code violation? There are several reasons for this. First, because what you’re eating could make its way into what you’re serving. Second, because if you sneeze or leave saliva behind, it could distribute illness.

Don’t assume your employees are well-versed in the do’s and don’ts of the kitchen. Take some time to ensure they feel comfortable asking for clarity if they:

  • Are unfamiliar with your restaurant’s food handling procedures.
  • Feel they do not have the resources or time to commit to proper food safety protocols. 
  • Need a refresher on ways to help prevent foodborne illness in the kitchen.

4. Poor Storage Practices
There’s no more surefire way to contaminate your product than to store it incorrectly—a likely scenario faced by the 43 percent of U.S. restaurants that do not appropriately separate raw animal products from other foods according to the FDA. If you have a hard time parting with what could be thousands of dollars’ worth of contaminated product, keep in mind that the Texas AgriLife Extension reports foodborne illness costs the U.S. between $5 billion and $17 billion in medical care and lost productivity every year—contamination is not a risk worth taking. To ensure your employees are taking the appropriate steps to minimize the threat of foodborne illness by contamination, you might consider sharing the following tips:

  • Ensure that your suppliers use a pest management program. An easy way for pests to enter your kitchen is by catching a ride on incoming shipments.
  • Inspect arriving shipments for signs of pest activity before accepting, such as droppings, hair, or other indications of contamination from pests. If any evidence is found, refuse the shipment and contact your supplier.
  • Keep food away from dishwashing areas, cleaning supplies, garbage containers, and restrooms.
  • You need dry products to stay dry and away from pests, so they should be stored high off the ground and away from walls so that they don’t become pests’ ideal breeding ground.
  • Even in a sealed container, meat or meat dishes should be stored below other items so the juices cannot drip and contaminate those items.
  • Wrap food with tight-fitting plastic wrap or aluminum foil before storing it when it’s not being used.

5. Incorrect Temperatures
Temperature control is tricky because, as you know, different foods require different storage temperatures. The general rule of thumb is to never leave food unrefrigerated for more than two hours—if the temperature is above 90°F, food should not be left out more than one hour. Foods left out for an extended period of time are susceptible to pest contamination, and unmonitored temperature control is one of the most common causes of a foodborne illness outbreak. Share the following information from the USDA with your kitchen staff in the event of any uncertainty:

  • Keep hot food hot—at or above 140°F. Place cooked food in chafing dishes, preheated steam tables, warming trays, and/or slow cookers.
  • Keep cold food cold—at or below 40°F. Place food in containers on ice.
  • Foods should be reheated thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165°F or until hot and steaming.
  • Hot foods should be cooled very quickly—within two hours—to decrease the chances of bacterial foodborne illness. Tip: A large pot of stew could take 6 hours to cool, so separating the stew into smaller containers can get it cooled within an hour.

The restaurant business is lucrative for those who succeed, but any fellow restaurateur will tell you it takes a lot more than the perfect location, excellent service and mouthwatering entrees to do so. Teaching your kitchen staff the tips above will help make your restaurant more unfriendly to pests

Ron Harrison, Entomologist, Ph.D., is Director of Technical Services for Orkin. He is an acknowledged leader in the field of pest management with more than 30 years of experience.