Preparation and Cooking

Food prep and cooking lie at the very heart of a HACCP plan, so getting these parts right is essential—and at times a bit tricky.

The design of a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program ensures that operators have adequately identified proper hazards. After that, the plan must specify what control measures are to be put in place. Experts indicate that most critical control points (CCPs) are going to apply to cooking or chilling and holding temperatures.

Once the HACCP plan is properly written, the correct CCPs identified and the other necessary parts of the program—critical-limits monitoring, corrective action, record keeping and verification—in place, the second-greatest challenge in most foodservice operations is training those staff members who are going to be responsible for monitoring and verification.

“That’s the biggest issue,” says Jeff Chilton, president of Chilton Consulting Services in Rocky Face, Georgia, “making sure the individuals who have those responsibilities…understand exactly the details of the contents of the HACCP plan and what’s required. Of course, they must also adequately perform them on a regular basis as required.”

Is it HACCP? One concern that directly affects prep and cooking is that many operators and employees alike aren’t aware that things like hand-washing and overall personal hygiene—which aren’t as easily quantifiable as so many other HACCP tasks—are nonetheless essential to the success of a food safety program.

“Time and temperature would be at the top of anybody’s list” of critical food safety issues, says veteran food safety consultant John Manoush, president of Manoush Associates, LLC, in Raymond, Maine.  “The next thing in foodservice—and it’s not rocket science—is hand-washing.”

“It is a problem,” Chilton concedes. “Those things certainly are part of the overall food safety system. Typically those types of items are part of prerequisite programs. If you look at your total food safety system, it’s made up of a combination of those prerequisite programs, your sanitation procedures and your HACCP system. You can’t have an effective food safety system without all three of those items being in place. So while items like hand-washing may not get the attention or the documentation of a critical control point in a HACCP plan, they are certainly equally important within the overall food safety system.”

The most obvious essential component of food prep is, in fact, personal hygiene, says John Zimmerman, senior director of quality assurance and food safety for Sodexho. This is directly related to the elimination of any cross-contamination opportunities. “It includes the use of proper cutting boards, how to prep vegetables, pre-washing produce, proper cook times for food items, etc.”

Problem No. 1: Manoush calls hand-washing “probably the biggest thing that foodservice people struggle with. From a HACCP point of view, you look at what (will) have the greatest possibility of causing harm to consumers. Other than not cooking to or holding at the proper temperature, transmitting organisms to the food by unclean hands is probably the chief problem, and the hardest one to control.”

A HACCP plan is “really best when you’re talking about things that can be monitored and controlled, like with a number,” Manoush adds. “Hand-washing is one of those things that is sort of a general requirement.” In a typical foodservice environment, he laments, “you have so many people in and out, and you don’t have policemen standing there. So that is a very difficult one, and is usually only attained by continued training and reinforcement.”

It is, Manoush concedes, “really rare to have any other HACCP points besides time and temperature.” Foreign materials control is a big topic in food manufacturing, with metal detectors and filters. In foodservice, though, “it usually comes back to time and temperature.”

Of the two, he adds, holding times is the bigger issue today. “Cooking to a given temperature is, in my experience, observed fairly well. I don’t see as many mistakes in that area. But holding at an improper temperature” continues to plague many institutional and commercial operators.

When it comes to fixing that problem, “The name of the game is really training, training, training and retraining,” says Manoush, “and it’s the hardest one because of the turnover. But it is still the cornerstone of (safe) food prep and cooking.”

On prep: The challenge in food prep is to maintain product temperature below or equal to 41°F while handling. Cooking temperatures, of course, vary according to the type of product being cooked, and are defined in the recently updated (2005) FDA Food Code. “If it’s just vegetables, then maybe the temperature is in the 145°F range,” says Chilton. “If it’s meat then you’re going to be up at 165°F.”

Chilton, who has designed and implemented HACCP plans for hospitals and other foodservice operations, points out that prep and holding assume increased importance when serving product on buffet tables.

“You need to be sure it is being held at 140°F or higher to minimize any possibility of pathogen growth,” says Chilton. “Secondly, you need to make certain that food that’s going to be left over is properly chilled back down and then adequately reheated before use.”

At Sodexho, HACCP systems are maintained, and its procedures reinforced, through ongoing communication with on-site personnel via the company’s intranet. It features a food safety page with a plethora of resources, tools and regulatory updates. More than 14,000 Sodexho managers regularly access the intranet.

For the records: Sodexho also has made electronic record-keeping a priority in its HACCP program. The company uses a proprietary software program that is, in effect, a paperless temperature documentation device. It can also be used to conduct self-inspections, with log forms and Web-based menu selections. “You can customize and download off of the intranet,” notes Zimmerman, who is based in Nashville, Tenn.

A relatively new, four-part video training series called Inspector HACCP drills procedures home, as do enhanced and downloadable interactive training modules called Walk the Talk. These are 10-minute, one-on-one training sessions designed for unit staffers.

Sodexho’s disaster preparedness program emphasizes having inventory on hand, such as potable water, and back-up generators for refrigerators and freezers. Another part, says Zimmerman, involves helping managers “make good decisions after a disaster in regard to disposal of items and disinfectant. This ultimately impacts food prep and cooking.”