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.
Training: Operators say that one of the reasons these employee-based issues are so challenging is because it’s difficult to find new ways to present information that, in some cases, has been taught since childhood. As Thomason’s Arnold says, “You have to take the creativity from the food side and apply that to the training.”
That’s something Mary Kate Harrison, general manager for the child nutrition department at 190,000-student Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Fla., has done. Last year, Harrison created a food safety training video in partnership with the county’s health department. The video follows an inspector while he inspects several schools. Harrison says the video is helpful because the inspector not only points out mistakes that have been made, but if the facility is doing something correctly, the inspector also says what it is that is being done right so employees have a comprehensive overview.
The district’s 2,000 employees view the video once a year. The video is posted online for easy access. After watching the video, the staff at each school follows up with a manager to reinforce the key issues.
Harrison says the video has not only been helpful for the district—since starting training with the video, the district’s violations have decreased—but it also helps the health department train their employees.
Reducing inspection violations is something Eileen Staples, director of food and nutrition services at 69,000-student Greenville (S.C.) County School District knows well. The district’s audit scores increased 12 points and the critical non-conformance violations decreased by 79% in two years. For her efforts, Staples was honord with the Food Safety Leadership Awards.
Staples attributes the better inspection scores to a new training program, in which eight employees trained as food safety training managers visit certain parts of the district. “Previous trainings with our employees were done in large groups and I knew it couldn’t be done in a large group because of all the requirements,” Staples says. Now each manager visits 10 schools to train the employees on HACCP regulations. Each training manager has training modules so the information is consistent throughout the district. The first module was on basics, such as hand washing.
For some operators, getting training from an outside person is valuable. Doug Davis, director of foodservice at 3,800-student Burlington (Vt.) School District, partnered with the University of Vermont to provide ServSafe classes. “To say that a representative from the university is coming to do this class is such a higher level of credibility,” Davis says. “The employees are more attentive; it’s just a different dynamic. It really means a lot to my staff when they get that certificate from the university. My staff doesn’t get the same level of professional development or professional days because foodservice workers are unfortunately not given the same amount of props that educators are.”
At 1,200-bed Swedish Medical Center, Kris Schroeder, administrative director of support services, brought in a retired health department inspector to work as a consultant to help her find safety concerns. “We told her to dig and find the stuff that we may be overlooking,” Schroeder says. “She gave us tips to make things easier and how to really focus on the key things like a surveyor does. One of these tips was if you walk into a walk-in refrigerator and you see a pan of food that has condensation built up on the plastic wrap that was covering it, you know that that food was not cooled properly because it would not have condensation if it had been cooled properly before it was covered.”
Equipment: Human error will always be a factor in food safety, especially with temperature monitoring, but operators say equipment can be a valuable asset. UCSF’s Henroid says that the best way to meet HACCP temperature requirements is to invest in electronic temperature monitors. “For all the many times we have to take temperatures throughout the day at multiple locations, it’s a pretty daunting task,” he says. But Henriod adds that until the return on investment for many of these products becomes higher, the equipment will remain out of reach for many operators.
Swedish’s Schroeder installed hand-washing sinks that force employees to properly wash their hands. To use the sinks, an employee must enter an ID number, which starts the water for a brief time. Employees then get soap and the water turns off for 15 seconds, during which time employees scrub their hands. After the 15 seconds, the water turns on and employees rinse their hands. To finish, employees wave their hands in front of a sensor to get credit. The sink also has a video showing the proper hand-washing procedure. Schoeder says the sinks help her set benchmarks to see if employees are washing their hands enough during a shift. Because the system counts the number of times employees wash their hands, Schroeder knows how many times on average each employee washes his/her hands and how that compares to other employees.
FSD talked with three industry experts to find out what food safety problems are the most challenging right now and where the future of food safety is going.
Jorge Hernandez, senior vice president of food safety and quality assurance for U.S. Foodservice
“Operators’ confidence is one of the big concerns right now because they don’t have the confidence in the safety of the food that they buy and sell. The recent FDA advisories and recalls and media stories have undermined that confidence. I get many calls from non-commercial operators trying to understand food safety concerns. Their concerns are in two parts: Understanding the safety of the products they buy and being able to answer questions from their customers when food safety issues arise.
We’ve developed what we call Fast Facts. When a new issue comes up, we develop a bulletin that says what the issue is, and the background about why it is important. We tell them what we are doing about it to mitigate the risk and what they should be doing about it. We blast it to all of our distribution centers and salespeople. We put it on the Web site. The idea is to get it to all of the 250,000 customers that we have as fast as we can.
For many years we’ve known that there are a large number of outbreaks, but what we did not know was what the causes were and where they were coming from. As technology helps us identify the ‘bugs,’ and we start to identify where they are coming from, we are plugging those holes. Unfortunately, to the public in general, they feel like more things are happening. The truth of the matter is that these things have been happening all along and people call it the flu or other things. Technology has allowed us to monitor outbreaks across the county. That’s what changed the game. As technology is progressing and we are faster to identify these things, we will continue to see these kinds of recalls and warnings more. As long as we in the industry identify them and fix them, they will tailor off. But it’s not going to happen for a long while.
What I think we are going to learn, and we have already started to see it in the recent events, is that ingredients can be a problem too. Like when a chemical gets identified as a problem and then that chemical is in milk, then the milk becomes an ingredient of 10 or 15 different products, that’s going to become more relevant.
The last thing we need to get over in the United States is that food safety has no geography. You can find good safety all across the world. There is this thought that if you know the person who sold you the product that it is going to be safe, but that’s not necessarily true. You need to trust and then verify.
Things are going to get worse before they get better. The good news is that this is at the top of the public’s mind. Food safety is a partnership with everybody in the food chain. It’s not just who you buy from, but it’s who that person buys from. Very often what happens with a problem in the chain is it doesn’t get mitigated and the person who is going to bear the brunt of that is the operator. Food safety needs to be a primary concern about who people buy from. It’s not just about price.”
Lee Johnson, director of technical services for Butterball LLC.
“The first problem I see right now is training and understanding good handling practices related to food safety, such as hand washing and sanitizing equipment. That’s going to be an ongoing challenge because you have to make sure that everybody who comes in is trained. I think it’s also about knowing the impact of that activity. Another is procedures to make these activities easy. On the manufacturing side, we put in processes to make sure that everything gets done right. In order to get in our ready-to-eat processing rooms, you have to go through a boot washer and be wearing special garb; it’s a clean room environment. So we make it tougher to do things wrong than it would be to do it right.
The last is the implementation of those systems, so how effective are those activities when they occur and are those systems being applied universally?
There has been a tremendous amount of improvement in the past few years, especially with HACCP. As our processes evolve, we are going to see a continuum right to the storefront. It’s no secret that foodservice operations and retail places have a problem with food sanitation, and I think that’s where we as an industry are working toward next.
I think the regulatory agencies will continue to tighten down on processors. Some of the systems will continue to tighten down and we will get more savvy as technology improves. I think, ultimately, we will translate a little bit more of the food safety regulations down the supply chain right to the vendors who are selling to the end users.
I think new organisms, such as campylobacter jejuni, will become bigger issues for raw meat purveyors in the future.”
Glenda Lewis, a member of the Food Protection Team at the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN)
“I think the biggest issues right now are [the employee-based issues], like passing of information from the managers to the workers, knowledge on employee health and reporting when they are ill and basic training mechanisms like washing hands. Sometimes you have cultural barriers and people do not understand or they are from a country where water is a really hot commodity and they don’t use water as frequently, so they might have a hesitancy to do frequent hand washing.
I think inservice training, providing proper equipment, doing innovative training with singing songs, contests, posters or buttons—No. 1 hand washer—will also help. A lot of cultures are verbal learners, so talking about things and not just putting up posters is important.
The best way to deal with recalls is to have good records of your inventory, have a good relationship with your distributors and get signed up for the FDA’s recall notifications.
When buying local, make sure that the source is reputable and follows the FDA’s Food Codes, which are generalized standards of public health that states can adopt as a part of their food safety regulations. The health department also licenses food retailers so make sure the farm has been checked out by the health department.
I think in the next five years we’ll still be dealing with employee behavior and trying to get people to wash their hands and not come to work sick and not contacting ready-to-eat foods with their bare hands. What will continue to emerge are pathogens that we learn as we get more sophisticated reporting systems.”
From Farm to Fork
Buying locally has become more common in operations, which raises additional food safety concerns for operators.
Doug Davis, director of foodservice at Burlington (Vt.) School District, buys more than 15,000 pounds of local produce each year. Davis says the best way to ensure the safety of local produce is to visit the farms. “I deal with 13 different farms,” he says. “I visit the farms; I look at their storage and shipping. I discuss with them how I want the produce brought in to the schools. The larger farms that I deal with have walk-ins right on site. The farms don’t have refrigerated trucks, but they are only a couple of miles from the schools. You have the farmer come in to see what you’re expecting and how stuff comes in from your major purveyors. Many of these farmers don’t know how you want things done. It’s not that they aren’t able, they just don’t know.”
Davis says to start by getting a list of practices about how the food is grown and food handling and transportation procedures from the farmers so that if a food safety issue were to arise, you have practices and procedures in writing to double-check with.
Greg Black, director of residential dining at the 30,000-student University of Iowa in Iowa City, says he also visits the local farms from which the university purchases eggs. Black says he uses these visits to see how the chickens are housed and fed, how the eggs are transported and to see if there are any potential cross-contamination issues. Black adds that it’s important to buy from a reputable source to ensure food safety.
For Mary Gregiore, director of food and nutrition services at 700-bed Rush Medical Center in Chicago, the struggle to come up with a strategy to ensure the safety of locally purchased foods has made it nearly impossible for her to purchase from local farms. “We’ve said we really want that food safety responsibility to be on our vendors, so our local purchasing is somewhat limited based on what we can get from our major vendors,” Gregiore says. “There is nothing that says a local vendor would be any more or less safe than a national brand. We’ve had some major food contamination issues with national brands, so I don’t feel a local source is any more of a concern. The problem with buying local is when we buy through one of our vendors, they’ve had to certify everything, and I’ve been unwilling to assume that responsibility at this point.”