The Little Things Still Matter

Food Safety is paramount in foodservice operations, but several large-scale food recalls in the past two years have operators and customers concerned about just how safe our food really is. For operators, the major food safety concern is not recalls, but the little things like proper employee hand washing or accurately monitoring temperatures.

There are many components in a successful foodservice operation: quality food, a variety of options, good customer service, ambiance and financial stability to name a few. None of those matter, however, if the food isn’t safe. And it seems that food safety is important now more than ever as several large-scale food recalls have rocked the nation, leaving consumers questioning how safe their food is.

The answer is not a comforting one, according to a report released in April by the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet). The company, a component of the Centers for Disease Control’s Emerging Infec­tions Program, found that the safety of the nation’s food supply has not improved during the past three years. “None of the Healthy People 2010 targets for reduction in foodborne pathogens were reached in 2008,” the study’s authors wrote in the report. “The lack of recent progress points to gaps in the current food safety system and the need to continue to develop and evaluate food safety practices as food moves from the farm to the table.”

Although the report looked at the food supply as a whole and not specifically at non-commercial operations, important conclusions can still be drawn: Food safety is paramount and not enough is being done to prevent foodborne illnesses.

With that in mind, FSD talked with operators to find out their biggest food safety challenges. We found a vast majority said it’s little things, such as properly washing hands, monitoring temperatures and preventing cross contamination, that were the biggest issues. The good news is these things are all relatively simple to fix. The bad news is getting employees to actually follow proper sanitation guidelines can be difficult to implement and monitor. 

Changing employee behavior: “The biggest food safety challenge we have is getting staff to practice what they are taught,” says Phil Arnold, food and nutrition director at 318-bed Thomason Hospital in El Paso, Texas. Arnold says making sure employees follow proper safety and sanitation procedures has been difficult, and he admits he struggles to find ways to make sure his employees make food safety the No. 1 priority. “Like many things in foodservice, you cannot go and say, ‘this is the answer,’” he says. “It’s about doing multiple things at once and making this habitual. It’s a journey; a challenging, long, but necessary journey.”

Arnold says that since his arrival in December 2006, the staff has made great strides in increasing the facility’s safety and sanitation. One of the ways this was accomplished was by increasing accountability. Arnold created a daily HACCP audit that a foodservice manager completes in the morning and afternoon, which he says helps the department stay on top of potential problems. The hospital also has an environmental care committee, which is made of up hospital employees from different departments. The committee does rounds throughout the hospital, including foodservice, looking for any safety issues. Arnold says this is helpful because it gives him an outside perspective. For example, he didn’t think a little carbon buildup on a non-food contact side of sheet pans was a big problem until he saw it through the eyes of someone else who mentioned it looked like the pans hadn’t been properly cleaned. 

Another way Arnold has been able to increase food safety is by motivating his employees. “I try to motivate the staff from a pride standpoint, but also from a standpoint of, ‘you’re here to protect the people that you are serving and this is a part of it too,’” he says.

Dan Henroid, director of nutrition and foodservices at the 560-bed UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco, agrees creating a staff culture where food safety is viewed as paramount is key. “There is nothing more important than department culture,” Henroid says. “You have to start from day one and ground one. I use the cliché that your system is only as strong as the weakest member. Every single employee has to have the same food safety concerns. We can’t have a manager out there at all times, so there needs to be a culture among the employees that this is the way we do things.”

To achieve this culture, Henroid says to make things personal. “There is sometimes a feeling in foodservice that they are doing this to protect themselves and not to protect the customers,” he says. “Especially in big institutional kitchens, many employees don’t see their customers. You have to remind them who they are serving and why it’s so important.” So Henroid makes sure back-of-the-house employees spend time working in the front of the house so they can build that personal connection with the customers. 

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