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Overcome Communication Barriers to Food Safety
by Cindy Rice, RS, MSPH, CP-FS
Young food worker raises his hand in 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 that yes, his boss makes everyone put raw potatoes through the dishwasher cycle before they cook them. When asked why, the young man replies, “Because my boss’s mother did it that way.” The practice is engrained in his boss’s brain regardless of the reason behind it. And, whether the practice is compromising the quality of the potatoes or not, the important message about properly washing produce is lost in translation.
Food safety is often like that. Industry and regulators are all working hard trying to do a good job, with the shared goal of protecting the public. But we don’t always speak the same language, and we often look at issues from different perspectives with different priorities. Due to miscommunication, cultural differences, or language barriers, the reasons behind certain food safety practices are not always clear.
On one side of the fence, regulators are trying to enforce the food code in their jurisdictions, and they often have a range of duties in addition to food—soil evaluations, Title 5, housing and pool inspections.
On the other side, food workers are trying to put out safe, wholesome food products, while still earning a profit. 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 buffet with a different set of eyes, wondering how long the foods have been sitting out of refrigeration; why exposed foods aren’t protected from flying insects; and observing dirty hands and cuts on the chef’s fingers.
Restaurants have great challenges, including high turnover rates for staff, language barriers, and food safety training gaps, and they understand the consequences are severe if they don’t do it right. Many health departments seek compensation for the costs of investigating outbreaks and assess fines for critical violations and reinspections—and traceback methods make the food industry more accountable and financially liable than ever.
Adding to the confusion are differing versions and occasional misinterpretations of the food code that operations are expected to follow. This is a common source of frustration for companies with units in different parts of the country. What is judged to be a critical violation by one inspector might be interpreted differently by another—sometimes even in the very same jurisdiction. While there are many diligent, knowledgeable inspectors conducting risk-based evaluations, others are misinterpreting the food code and prohibiting certain risky processes, even if industry can document safe procedures. Unfortunately, these imprecise individuals can quickly ruin the credibility of the good inspectors out there.
More challenges arise from distributors, including deliveries left out by the back door in the middle of summer; Listeria coming in on the milk crates from delivery trucks; and some vendors trying to pass off older product on less savvy individuals. One restaurant chain confronted its egg supplier over eggs that were coming in watery, with yolks breaking on the grill and a great deal of discarded product. The egg vendor replied, “Well, it’s summertime. Chickens drink more water, and their eggs come out more watery.” Where is the science that backs this up? It’s just one more hurdle that restaurants must face as they try to run safe, efficient operations.
Differing versions and occassional misinterpretations of the food code are common sources of frustration for companies with units in different parts of the country. What is judged as a critical violation by one inspector can be interpreted differently by another.
Restaurants are not perfect, either. In an ideal world, food workers would be taking the temperatures of every burger that comes off the grill. But reality includes milk leaks in coolers, bare hands contacting ready-to-eat foods, improper food rotation, and sick employees. Add to this the multicultural workforce that comprises the food industry, and we have challenges in the food safety system that cannot be taken lightly.
Recognizing the fact that restaurants have a lot on their plates, Eastern Food Safety conducted a study of certified food managers at 400 restaurants on the East Coast, asking them, “What keeps you up at night?” Staffing issues were the most pressing concern for 47%, followed by time constraints and customer satisfaction at 15% each. When asked how comfortable they feel calling their health inspector if they have a problem, only 35% stated that they would feel very comfortable. The million-dollar question, “How do you feel when the health inspector comes to do an inspection?” found 61% responding that they feel anxious and panicked.
These results may not come as a surprise to anyone who’s been in the field for any length of time, no matter what their position, and the challenges become magnified by cultural variations and language barriers in the workplace.
Cultural diversity often makes people think of unfamiliar foods, and they are unsure how to evaluate them during an inspection. Are the baluts or scorpions on a skewer safe to eat, even if they are unrecognizable by the inspector? It is important for both industry and regulators to understand an item’s characterization as a TCS [time/temperature control for safety] food and apply food safety measures accordingly. For example, traditional Middle Eastern shawarma meat, which rotates constantly on a vertical “rotisserie,” should be evaluated on its exposure to elevated ambient temperatures during the service period, with particular focus on the internal temperatures of the meat, not on the familiarity of the product. In other words, we should worry more about the internal temperatures, product sources, and sanitary conditions of the workplace rather than the food in question.
While our stated goal may be cultural sensitivity, especially given the explosion of ethnic restaurants and imported foods in the U.S., it is easy to judge foods by their “familiarity quotient.” For example, one local health inspector, unfamiliar with the particular risks of making sushi and unsure of how to validate a HACCP plan as required by law, blankly forbid the licenses of sushi production in her jurisdiction. She is doing a disservice to conscientious operators who have the ability and knowledge to produce these food products safely.
However, there are instances of language barriers posing true potential risks to food safety, as evidenced during some recent inspections. When asked to calibrate her bimetallic stemmed thermometer, a manager demonstrated the process using hot oil. In another restaurant, a young food worker was trying to cool hot diced cooked potatoes by piling them 12 inches deep in a bus bucket sitting on a thin layer of ice. Although he was trying to do the right thing, something was lost in translation.
In a large seafood processing plant, a woman power-washing the floor of the production room was spraying contaminants over floors, drains, and surrounding equipment. Training employees is challenging enough without the extra hurdles of language barriers, as in these cases.
There are some practical strategies that can bridge the training gap, regardless of language spoken, including color-coding equipment and utensils, effectively taking the guesswork out of the preparation process.
Industry needs communication and support from regulators, suppliers, and management in order to operate efficiently and safely. Employees appreciate practical solutions to everyday challenges, and it can be something as simple as a more effective way to cool foods, date-mark products, or prevent cross-contact of allergens.
There are some practical strategies that can help bridge the training gap, regardless of language spoken. Color-coded equipment and utensils take the guesswork out of the preparation process, helping to prevent cross-contamination of raw meats and other products. Zone isolation reduces cross-contamination between different zones of an operation, isolating contaminants to a particular area. Colored day-of-the-week labels communicate food rotation principles and use-by dates, using color as a guide rather than language. Posters with colorful images depicting refrigerator storage order, food allergens, and handwashing are constant reminders of proper procedures for employees, regardless of cultural background or learning ability. These strategies all help to bridge language gaps that may exist in any operation and can strengthen a food safety program.
FDA research shows that foodservice workers are oral culture learners, learning more effectively through visual demonstrations and storyboards than written text methods. Eastern Food Safety has gone one step further with a series of “show-and-tell” videos, seizing teachable moments and communicating proper food safety practices while crossing multiple learning and cultural barriers.
Our goal is to use whatever tools we can to teach and reinforce safe food handling practices. This is especially true of establishments that may not have corporate support for trainings or a food safety director implementing systems. Whether you are a restaurant owner, line worker, vendor or regulator, we need to act as partners to find workable food safety solutions that will help us all. We need to seize these teachable moments and tell employees not only how to do certain tasks but also why they should be done in specific ways, applying accurate information based on science.
Only by working together can we help keep our customers safe from foodborne illness and our businesses efficient and profitable.
Cindy Rice, RS, MSPH, CP-FS, is president of Eastern Food Safety. Ms. Rice is an epidemiologist, certified food safety educator, and consultant for the food industry, regulators, and consumers. A national speaker and author, Ms. Rice is a food safety expert for Ecolab, writing for Food Safety Solutions, The Griffin Report, and other trade publications. Her own publications include Don’t Pick off the Croutons (an allergy handbook), Pocket Guide to Food Safety, PIC Manual, and a series of online training videos for the foodservice industry. Eastern Food Safety information may be found at www.easternfoodsafety.com. The company may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.