Food Safety Is Really About Leadership
A culture of safe food handling practices starts at the top.
As a consumer, I’ve always loved fine dining: the ambiance, pressed white linens, nice tableware, chilled forks, well trained staff, and great food. While indulging in these luxuries—and the expenses associated with them—one has certain expectations.
I would expect delicious food that’s prepared properly in a hygienic environment that’s safe for me to eat. As an inspector at Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc., I had a rude awakening that this is not always the case. While, in most situations, the executive chef and their teams are doing amazing jobs, mistakes are still made—even in fine-dining establishments.
Recently, I was auditing one of my favorite full-service restaurants. With its marble floors, white linens, and great food, I’d been a longtime fan of this establishment. I was actually looking forward to visiting their kitchen because I loved the place. But when I visited, I witnessed a disgusting scene. There were too many violations to list. There were numerous temperature violations and mystery meat in five-gallon buckets (old chemical buckets!) in the walk-in cooler. The cooks were picking crab meat off the leftovers from the guests’ plates to make crab imperial and cream of crab soup—two of my favorite dishes—to serve to other diners! The chilled forks were being cooled directly on three inches of contaminated ice build-up in a dilapidated old freezer. As I stood engaged in a heated discussion with the owner about these infractions, a cockroach wandered across the stainless-steel countertop between us. The owner simply smashed it with his hand and knocked it onto the floor. Oddly enough, the owner of this establishment didn’t think that his facility had serious issues. Not only did I write up these many violations, I haven’t eaten there since. The violations were appalling, and the food-borne illness risks at the facility were monumental.
While auditing at a different full-service restaurant, I was standing in the kitchen when I observed a chef take off a pair of single-use gloves only to expose another pair underneath—a definite food safety violation! When I questioned him, he explained that the sink was “too far away to keep running over there to wash my hands”. I was stunned. As it turned out, he was wearing five pairs of single use gloves simultaneously. On another visit to this establishment, I witnessed another chef washing his hands while wearing single-use gloves—rather than removing them, washing his hands, and putting on a clean pair. The potential cross-contamination and cross-contact issues that both of these situations created were numerous. I am certain this wasn’t taught in culinary school. Their instructors would be mortified.
In situations like these, I can’t help but wonder—how do restaurants wind end up here, with cockroaches crawling on their counters and repurposing the leftovers from guests’ plates to serve again? Where is the pride, personal integrity, and sense of responsibility? None of this is acceptable behavior, and no one who has had any foodservice training should believe these behaviors are reasonable. To make matters worse, these violations came from the restaurants’ leadership.
Leadership is the foundation of what happens in a restaurant. Leaders set the tone for food safety issues in the kitchen and throughout the establishment. It’s imperative that leaders set the highest standards for food safety, especially in the kitchen. Your team follows your example, so reiterate the importance of proper food safety protocols to them. Many of the people who work for you will eventually be part of your management team, or even own their own restaurants. They will remember and be grateful for your mentoring.
Here are a few helpful tips from Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc. for running a safe and successful kitchen:
Stay current and get your team formally trained in a Certified Food Manager course. This will reiterate the importance of the critical rules and regulations that you learned when you initially began in the food service business. Sometimes, a busy day or being short-staffed distracts from following the basic rules, and a “refresher” course can be a helpful reminder of the fundamentals.
Train your employees using a Food Handlers program. This will provide your team with basic (but critical) food safety knowledge. The more educated your team, the more profitable your organization.
Conduct self-inspections. This will enable you to catch small issues before they become big problems. For example, if you received a delivery and it wasn’t stored properly, this gives you the opportunity to take corrective action, reminding staff of proper protocols. Otherwise, there could be a spoilage issue, a cross-contamination or cross-contact problem, or other challenges that may not be noticed until it’s too late. Hold one another accountable.
Use temperature logs. This is a valuable tool that will assist you with spotting temperature issues before they become a cost factor or liability issue. By utilizing temperature logs, you can take corrective action prior to having to waste product, therefore decreasing food cost and increasing profit margins. This valuable tool aids in finding temperature issues prior to the health inspector writing them up as code violations, but most importantly, it’s a proactive means to keeping your patrons healthy.
Hire an agency to conduct third-party audits. Often, bringing in an objective third party will boost your profits and increase your health inspection scores. Another set of eyes from the “outside” will help you see things from a different perspective, which can be invaluable. They can review key elements that the health inspector will be assessing, and can help point out possible infractions. Hire someone reputable who knows the business and genuinely cares about your outcome.
Implement an Active Managerial Control Program. The purpose of Active Managerial Control is to focus on controlling the five most common risk factors for food-borne illness:
Purchasing food from unsafe sources
Failing to cook food adequately
Holding food at incorrect temperatures
Using contaminated equipment
Practicing poor personal hygiene
Taste correctly with a clean utensil EVERY time. No double dipping!
Utilize single-use gloves properly. Single-use gloves are a protective barrier between your hands and the food you serve. If your gloves become contaminated, they’re useless. Prior to putting the gloves on, wash your hands properly with soap as well as warm water at 100⁰F (38⁰C), then dry them thoroughly. Never blow into the gloves or roll them to make them easier to put on—both of these practices will cause contamination. Single-use gloves must be changed as soon as they become dirty or torn, when changing tasks, after interruptions (such as taking a phone call), or after handling raw meat, seafood, or poultry and before handling ready-to-eat food.
Holding a leadership role in the foodservice industry isn’t an easy job, with long hours, and high stress. Sometimes you work for many days straight without a day off, but you still need to be a positive role model for your staff. Leaders should model the importance of proper food safety protocols, ensuring that their entire team follows these important rules. By doing so, you’ll improve your business benefits (higher profits and strong customer loyalty), and keep your valued guests safe.
The opinions of contributors are their own. Publication of their writing does not imply endorsement by FSR magazine or Journalistic Inc.