According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 million people become ill every year in America due to foodborne illnesses and half of those outbreaks are associated with restaurants or delis. To ante-up the importance of taking these statistics seriously as a restaurateur, 3,000 of these people die every year.
In a collaborative project with CDC, the Environmental Health Specialists Network (EHS-Net) investigated hundreds of restaurants across the country regarding sanitation practices, and their findings were anything but reassuring.
Over half of the 385 restaurants that served hamburgers were found to have “risky ground beef handling practices.” These “risky practices” could contribute to E. coli infections, a bacterium that creates approximately 61,153 illnesses in America every year and ends up killing about 20.
What are Risky Sanitation Practices?
In this investigation, 62 percent of restaurants had staff that did not wash their hands in-between handling raw ground beef and touching cooked ground beef or ready-to-eat (RTE) foods. In 42 percent of restaurants, utensils were used on raw ground beef without washing, rinsing or sanitizing before using on cooked beef, and 40 percent of restaurants had employees that wiped their hands on their aprons or wiping cloths after handling raw ground beef.
If E. coli was looking to jump ship from its raw hamburger haven, it had plenty of opportunities. In fact, 53 percent of these restaurants practiced two or more of these actions that could lead to cross-contamination.
The Number One Protocol
Developing a personal (and written) food safety system with established protocols is essential to ensuring that your restaurant does not become part of the foodborne illness statistics. The most important practice is personal hygiene and hand washing. The two-second quick hand rinse with water does not count. Make sure you have the correct way to wash hands posted, that you have designated hand-washing sinks, and that your managers are ensuring the execution of your policies.
Your policies should also include when this vital personal hygiene measure is performed. This should include: when employees get to work, before they touch food or utensils, before putting on gloves and when changing gloves, before and after touching raw foods, after using the bathroom, after taking a break, and after performing any types of activities that could cause contamination such as taking out the trash or cleaning. Disposable gloves should always be used when handling RTE foods.
In your policy, include your expectations as far as personal hygiene. This may include wearing clean clothes, maintaining cut fingernails without polish, and removing jewelry prior to handling food with the exception of a wedding band.
Maintaining a Clean Environment
Washing AND sanitizing every surface that comes into contact with food is vital. Using a disinfectant that is strong enough to control germs while not overly concentrated to cause harm to customers is a fine line. Paper test strips are available in order to test these solutions and ensure safety levels are being met. Wiping cloths should be stored in a bucket of sanitizer when not being used and the solution should be changed fairly frequently.
To prevent cross-contamination, make sure these areas are being cleaned and sanitized before and after coming into contact with food: cutting boards, utensils, prep tables, scales and meat slicers. Store your raw meats on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator, at least six inches above the floor. This keeps meats from leaking onto the foods below it. The best food-safety practices involve keeping separate cutting boards and utensils for various raw proteins as well as produce. Consider using a color-coding system with different colors for produce, chicken, beef and fish.
Some of you may be wondering just how to enforce these types of regulations with your somewhat independent and strong-headed employees. Fortunately, human beings are creatures of habits, and that includes good habits as well as bad. Educating your employees on the risks associated with bad choices, as well as ensuring management understands protocol and responsibility will have you set up to provide your customers with the best and safest product in no time.