Roughly one in 6 Americans (or, 48 million people) is sickened by foodborne illnesses each year, leading to about 3,000 fatalities and 128,000 hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Older adults, expectant women, young children, and those with compromised immunity are at the greatest risk of developing severe symptoms.
Thankfully, well-planned and implemented food safety measures can help diminish the risk of foodborne diseases and injury. They can also help you prevent allergen cross-contamination, maintain the integrity & reputation of your products, and ensure compliance with regulations governing the food industry.
Although food safety is covered by a large umbrella, its success requires cooperation by everyone involved across the whole supply chain, from the smallest task to the largest.
In order to help you play your part, here are five easy safety tips anyone working with food should keep in mind.
1- Avoid cross-contamination
Cross-contamination is well-documented as one of the leading causes of foodborne illness, particularly in the kitchen, as noted by the New York Times. When surfaces, equipment, and food teem with bacteria, viruses, and other harmful microbes can easily cross-contaminate clean food when the two come into contact.
For example, harmful bacteria from raw chicken can quickly spread to cooked, ready-to-eat (RTE) and no-cook food ingredients like sliced onions and tomatoes. Here are two golden rules for avoiding cross-contamination:
Storage rule: Raw food and cooked food or RTE foods must never be stored close together on shelves, in the refrigerator, or elsewhere. Microorganisms from raw food can easily crossover to other foods and, without effective measures, the harmful microbes can rapidly grow on cooked food.
Dedicate one storage area to raw meats and poultry, and another to cooked food and RTEs, especially if you are storing them in the same space. This strategy will work best if you use shelving units closest to the ground for raw foods so as to avoid cross-contamination through wet leaks and drips.
Cutting board rule: To make sure that you don’t cross-contaminate raw food with RTE hot and cold foods, you must have a separate cutting board for each food group. Label each board or use different colored ones to avoid any confusion. Also be sure to keep these cutting boards separate.
The same rule applies to other food-related equipment, including data loggers, thermometers, utensils, slicers, and so forth. Keep separate tools for raw and cooked foods or make sure they are cleaned thoroughly after each use.
2- Promote and enforce hand washing
Hand washing is the golden activity when it comes to ensuring food safety. The chances are good that your café, restaurant, food processor, or commercial kitchen has a designated hand-washing station accessible to everyone who works there. It should be well-equipped with everything you need to get your hands germ-free and squeaky clean.
As a rule of thumb, make it a habit to clean your hands:
● Prior to handling any food, be it vegetables, poultry, meat, RTEs, or other ingredients. Even the tiniest number of microbes can be enough to sicken the whole restaurant if they end up contaminating ingredients, utensils, or food.
● After every bathroom visit
● Before and after you handle raw poultry, meat or fish
● Every time you come back from a smoke/vaping break
● Whenever you have touched garbage, dirty dishes, or leftovers
● After every time you touch your phone because those small screens are usually rife with bacteria and other pathogens
● After coughing, blowing your nose or sneezing
● After taking a breakfast, lunch or dinner break
● After touching, handling or coming into contact with a pet
One more thing: hand washing is much more than splashing your hands with water. You should lather them liberally with warm soapy water and wash every nook & cranny of your hands, for no less than 20 seconds. That way, you can give ample time for soap agents to properly disinfect your hands and zap microbes.
3- Ensure food is cooked properly
The cooking process is an incredibly effective kill step that not only softens tissue and adds flavor to food but also destroys microbial contaminants. Undercooking food can lead to foodborne illness because viruses, bacteria, and other harmful microorganisms can survive. This is especially true for pork and whole poultry which are susceptible to bacterial growth during slaughter and processing.
An instant-read or meat thermometer will prove super useful and convenient for checking the internal temperature to ensure foods are cooked properly and all the way through. For instance, casseroles, poultry (both dark and white types of meat), and stuffed food should be cooked until their core temp reads at least 165°F.
The minimum threshold for ground meats is a little lower at around 160°F, while hamburgers and sausages should hit at least 155°F before being served.
Bottom line, make sure your cooking procedures meet internal temperatures recommended by the FDA or a manufacturer.
4- It all starts with employee health and personal hygiene
Employees are your single-most important asset, no matter what your business does in the food industry. However, it is easy for sloppy or untrained employees to disregard food safety rules. Fish left on the preparation table for a few minutes too long can be enough to cause food poisoning. Shedding a loose hair on a plate of soup can only end horribly and be costly. What to do?
Ensure your employees are well-trained. Regular training will make sure your staff is updated on the latest food safety measures and procedures.
Employee health, safety, and personal hygiene matter. No employee in the food sector should get away with working while sick with food poisoning, diarrhea, or flu. That is why you must have measures in place to report illness in a timely manner.
Hair should be pulled back and preferably restrained with a hairnet. Fingernails must be cut short and maintained properly because they can harbor bacteria. Necklaces, watches, earrings, bracelets, and other jewelry can host and spread germs. They should be removed before clocking in or, even better, left at home.
5- Have a sound HACCP Plan
When it comes to the food industry, it’s best to have a sound plan in place to prevent food safety issues before they happen. Companies who do an effective job implementing a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan set themselves up to avoid problems down the line.
An HACCP plan is dedicated to tracking every aspect of the entire food supply chain in order to eliminate, prevent, or reduce potential food hazards to a permissible level. According to Dickson, having an actionable HACCP plan is important for any food manufacturer, handler, or provider.
It is critical for food providers or processors to have the right safety protocols and measures in place to ensure their products are safe and effective for both employees and consumers. Promoting handwashing, avoiding cross-contamination, cooking food properly, and staying on top of employee training will help you prevent foodborne illness and remain compliant with food safety regulations.
Ultimately, creating and implementing a solid HACCP plan to monitor your entire food supply system will help you effectively prevent and identify food safety hazards. Having a well crafted plan is far more effective and prudent than playing a whack-a-mole game with the health and safety of employees and consumers.