Dire warnings about a potential H1N1 (swine flu) epidemic last year turned out to have been overdone, but gave needed awareness to how easily germs spread and what foodservice workers can do to keep them at bay. Now that we’re in National Food Safety Education Month, let’s take a quick look at the most effective steps restaurant workers can take to keep the food safety ball rolling.
The inherent dangers of foodborne illnesses are something that’s never going to go away.
“Public hygiene, specifically in areas where consumers eat, is top-of-mind with the American public,” says Donna Duberg, assistant professor in Clinical Laboratory Science at Saint Louis University. “Restaurant owners stand to lose a lot if they aren’t paying attention to what is important to their customers.” She cites a Harris Interactive online survey that found that 32 percent of all food poisoning incidents are due to poor hygiene at the restaurant level.
Duberg offers these tips for restaurant owners who want to raise their current hygiene standard even higher.
• Use paper, not cloth. “Contrary to popular belief, cloth towels are not as hygienic as single-use nonwoven wipes when it comes to cleaning,” she says. “Bacteria can live for days on a surface and for weeks on cloth. Because cloth rags and towels used for cleaning are generally kept in dark places and are not always completely dry before they are put away, they become the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Single-use wipes clean surfaces and are then discarded.”
• Help high-risk patrons steer clear of undercooked foods. “Remember to always cook food to the required minimum internal temperature and use a thermometer to ensure you’ve reached the appropriate heat,” Duberg notes. “And always wash properly. If cloth must be used, remember that any cloth used for cleaning should be sanitized by washing in hot (at least 160 degrees), soapy water.”
• Color-code your products. “Using color-coded cleaning products, such as wipes, can be very helpful in the prevention of cross-contamination,” she points out. “Each color can be designated for separate uses or certain areas of the restaurant.”
• Eliminate cross-contamination. “Since bacteria can live on cloth for a considerable amount of time, the risk of cross-contamination is far greater with cloth than with nonwoven wipes,” Duberg says. “Cloth allows for bacteria from back-of-the-house tasks to easily migrate to the dining area”.
Does it sound like Duberg has a vested interest in promoting single-use wipes? She definitely does. She’s a member of the Tork Green Hygiene Council, Tork being a brand of paper company giant SCA. However, that doesn’t necessarily make her advice any less relevant or accurate.
If you’ve ever found yourself cringing when you see one of your employees use a semi-dirty towel to wipe down a food prep surface in your restaurant’s kitchen, or if you’ve winced when one of your bussers uses a past-its-prime cloth to clean off a table out front, you might want to consider this option. All the publicity about H1N1 made people, including your employees, as sensitive and knowledgeable about how germs are spread as they’re ever going to be. If you want to make hygiene a point of emphasis in your restaurant, the time to do it is now.