Spring into Food Safety
Protect what’s on your plates
By Patricia Nicholson
Spring is a great opportunity to audit your basic food
safety practices. Basic food safety includes proper storage and cooking procedures, and prevention of cross-contamination, which can be a significant problem in foodservice.
One of the worst scenarios imaginable for a restaurateur
is making a customer sick. Even worse is making several customers sick. Worse still is being featured on the evening news as the restaurant that served food leading to an
outbreak of e. coli or salmonella or hepatitis A.
While improperly handled poultry and undercooked hamburgers tend to be the fears that haunt the public’s imagination, more danger may be lurking in the salad bowl.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are one of the most significant sources of foodborne illness, says Dr. Doug Powell, scientific director of the Food Safety Network. He added that in the past few months, there have been seven outbreaks traced to fresh produce, causing 600 cases of illness and three deaths. Some of the most common culprits include tomatoes, leafy greens such as spinach and lettuce, and cantaloupe.
These risks may originate on the farm, and washing produce won’t get rid of them. Using a reputable distributor who is aware of how their farm suppliers are controlling microbiological risks on the farm is one way to help ensure safe produce.
Even if no one ever gets sick from its food, poor food safety practices may harm a restaurant’s reputation. In many areas, restaurant inspection results used to be a relatively private matter. Now, inspection reports have gone public in many cities. In Vancouver, results are now posted online. In Toronto, foodservice operators must post a large colour-coded report card: green pass, yellow conditional pass, or red, indicating closure for health violations. Even if you passed your most recent inspection, last year’s conditional pass may still haunt your record and your reputation, even if it was for something minor, such as a missing hairnet.
Powell says making food safety a priority must go far beyond an annual inspection.
“What you need to do is convey a culture that values safe food and food safety practices at each individual restaurant,” Powell says. He recommends reinforcing the importance of food safety among employees and offering incentives and rewards for practicing safe food behaviour.
Every employee must be aware of dangers such as transferring bacteria from raw poultry to fresh products, or of the potential repercussions of not washing their hands after visiting the restroom.
Implementing measures such as a training course on food safety and handling for employees, segregating work spaces and storage areas to avoid cross-contamination, and ensuring that soap dispensers are in working order may help avoid some common pitfalls.
The Food Safety Network publishes a weekly infosheet specifically for foodservice employees, using entertaining graphics and news of recent outbreaks to reinforce a culture of safe food.
“We find people learn more through stories,” Powell says. So instead of telling foodservice workers to wash their hands, the infosheets tell them to wash their hands or they might potentially sicken thousands of people, as one pizza place employee did after he returned from a vacation with hepatitis A.
Download the infosheets online at foodsafetyinfosheets.ksu.edu, or subscribe by emailing email@example.com.
Safe storage, handling and cooking practices are the key to preventing many foodborne illnesses.
The Food Safety Information Society offers the following advice to consumers:
Hot or cold, not warm: Remember that bacteria are fond of temperatures between 4°C/40°F and 60°C/140°F, and multiply more quickly under these conditions. Store and serve perishable foods at temperatures below or above this range. Hot foods should be served hot (73°C/165°F), not warm. Cold foods should be served below 4°C/40°F. Food thermometers can help ensure safe temperatures. In situations where food will sit before serving (buffets, display cases), be sure to use heat sources and beds of ice to keep foods at proper temperatures.
Safe keeping: Store milk and cream below 4°C/40°F, on a shelf in the refrigerator (not in the door). Never pour milk or cream that has been in a pitcher back into the original container. Discard milk that has been at room temperature for longer than two hours. Leaving products out for too long is the most common source of contamination in dairy products, so having standard cold chain practices in place for deliveries can help avoid spoilage. Canned or UHT milk that has been opened must be refrigerated and should be used within seven days.
Different types of seafood have different safe storage lives, but all must be kept below 4°C/40°F. Raw fish such as salmon or trout may keep for two or three days,
but raw lobster or crab must be used within 12 to 24 hours. Use raw scallops and raw or cooked shrimp within one or two days. Most seafood can be safely frozen at
-18°C/0°F for at least two months.
Uncooked roasts of beef, lamb, pork or veal can be refrigerated for three or four days, but steaks, chops and ribs should be used in two or three days. Beef (except ground beef, see below) can be frozen for 10 to 12 months, lamb and pork for eight to 10 months, and veal for four to five months. Keep organ meats such as liver or kidneys for one or two days in the refrigerator and three or four months in the freezer.
Fresh chicken and turkey can be stored in the refrigerator for two days. Whole birds can be frozen for 12 months.
A refrigeration specialist can double-check freezers and refrigerators to make sure fresh and frozen produce, protein and dairy are all stored at optimum temperatures.
Grounds for caution: Ground meats and ground poultry require special care. In whole cuts of meat, bacteria are most likely to be on the surface, where they will be exposed to high heat and killed upon cooking. When meat is ground, bacteria on the surface are distributed throughout the meat. Store ground meat in the coldest part of the refrigerator on a tray that prevents it from dripping onto other food, and use within 24 hours. Alternatively, freeze immediately, and defrost completely before cooking. Ground meats and ground poultry must be cooked thoroughly, with the centre reaching a temperature of at least 71°C/160°F.
For detailed information on storing specific foods, consult the Food Safety Information Society’s publication How to Store Food Safely,
available through www.foodsafetyline.org