A young man raises his hand at the beginning of a food manager certification class and asks if it is really necessary to put raw potatoes in the dishwasher before he cooks them. The instructor looks at him quizzically and says, “No, why? Are you doing that at work?”
The young man says, yes, that his boss makes everyone put raw potatoes through the dishwasher cycle—with the soap and hot water—before cooking them. When asked why, the young man replies, “Because my boss’s mother did it that way.” And that is ingrained in his boss’s brain regardless of the reason behind it. Harmful or not to potatoes’ safety or quality, the important message about properly washing produce is lost in translation.
Food safety is often like that. Despite everyone sharing the same goals of trying to protect the public, restaurant staff and regulators go about achieving the end result with differing methods. This is in part because they’re both coming from separate perspectives, and cannot always understand each other’s reasoning behind certain food safety practices.
While regulators are trying to enforce their jurisdiction’s food code, food workers are focused on offering wholesome food products. A chef might put out an exquisite food presentation, thinking of his customers’ delight at the wonderful display. But a health inspector looks at the same spread with a different set of eyes: wondering how long the foods have been sitting out of refrigeration and observing dirty hands or cuts on the chef’s fingers.
Restaurants have great challenges, with high turnover rates for staff, language barriers and food safety training gaps, and they understand there are stiff consequences if they don’t do it right. Many health departments seek compensation for the costs of investigating outbreaks and fines for critical violations and reinspections. In addition, traceback methods further increase accountability and financial liability within the food industry.
Differing versions and occasional misinterpretations of the food code add to the challenges. This is a common source of frustration for chains that have units in different parts of the country where regulations vary. Overzealous inspectors, who quickly ruin the credibility of all good inspectors, also try the patience of those in the food industry directly responsible for interacting with the inspectors.
Still, restaurants are not perfect, either. In a perfect world, everyone would be taking temperatures of every burger that comes off the grill. But in reality, there are milk leaks in coolers, bare hands contacting ready-to-eat foods, improper food rotation and sick food workers.
These issues are not surprising to anyone who’s been in the food industry for any length of time, at any position. Restaurants and regulators both need to work together and communicate honestly with each other to achieve expected levels of operational efficiency and safety.
By offering practical solutions to everyday challenges—whether it be something as simple as a more effective way to cool foods, date-mark products or prevent cross-contact of allergens—these teachable moments impart the knowledge to employees of not only how to perform a certain task, but the reason behind doing it in the first place. Building this level of understanding forms a base for future actions designed to prevent food safety risks before they elevate to a level that will attract unwanted (yet possibly needed) attention from an inspector.
For smaller independent establishments without a built-in corporate training infrastructure or already developed food safety systems that simply need to be implemented, this is especially true. All members of the team—restaurant owner, line worker, vendor and regulator—must work together to determine effective food safety solutions that benefit everyone. This level of partnership is critical for keeping customers safe from foodborne illness, and for keeping businesses efficient and profitable.
Cindy Rice is president of Eastern Food Safety and is an epidemiologist, certified food safety educator, consultant and speaker/author for the food industry, regulators and consumers. For more information, please visit www.easternfoodsafety.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.