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Supply Chain Safety
To reduce the incidence of foodborne disease, food safety professionals must focus on all parts of the food chain—from farm to fork
by John G. Surack, Phd
An estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths are attributable to foodborne illness in the United States each year. Ensuring safe food remains an important public health priority for our nation. A critical link in the farm-to-fork food chain is the food service industry. It is a diverse industry encompassing hospitals, schools, retail stores, and restaurants that range from fast food to full service and from family run to multinational chain.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has actively provided food safety guidance to food safety organizations for over 60 years. In 1934, the U.S. Public Health Service published the Restaurant Sanitation Regulations. The work of safeguarding the public’s health continued with the publication of the first edition of the Food Code in 1993.
The Food Code, which is periodically revised, was published most recently in 2005. It is used by local and state regulatory agencies to develop science-based regulations to manage foodborne illnesses in food service establishments. Presently, 49 of the 56 U.S. states and territories have incorporated the Food Code into local and state regulations that protect 88% of the population in those states and territories. The Food Codes published between 1997 and 2005 are available on the FDA Web site.
Some minor but significant differences exist among the various editions of the Food Code. For example, the temperature danger zone is defined as the temperature range that favors the growth of microorganisms. In the 1997 and previous editions of the Food Code, this range was defined as 41ºF to 140ºF. In the Food Codes published after 2001, the range was changed to 41ºF to 135ºF. The change was made because scientific evidence showed that 135ºF was well above the growth range for foodborne pathogens. It is worth noting, however, that the difference between the two ranges affects state and local food service regulations, because the actual regulations are based on specific editions of the Food Code. Therefore, this report will use the more conservative range (41ºF to 140ºF).
The Food Code uses the hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) approach, coupled with prerequisite programs, as a strategy to prevent food safety problems in food service operations. In addition, the 2005 edition describes the use of risk-based audits to ensure that food service establishments comply with the regulations.
In 2004, the FDA reported on the occurrence of foodborne illness risk factors in selected food service establishments. As a result of this study, five potential factors for serving unsafe food were identified: poor personal hygiene, food from unsafe sources, improper holding times and/or temperatures, inadequate cooking, and contaminated equipment and/or the prevention of contamination of food. The percentage of out-of-compliance observation for each risk factor that could contribute to foodborne illnesses in restaurants and retail operations was measured (see Table 1 below).
This research allowed state and local regulatory agencies to develop a risk-based approach for auditing food service establishments and to focus the audits on areas with specific weaknesses. In addition, food service establishments now have a priority list to use to develop an improvement plan for reducing the risk of foodborne illness. The risk factors fall into the following major groups: management and employee practices, suppliers, cooking and holding procedures for food (time/temperature), and equipment and facilities.
Managerial and Employee Practices
The Food Code requires that the owner or a manager be on the premises at all times during the hours of operation. These individuals have the responsibility of ensuring that critical activities are performed. In addition, they are responsible for assuring the production of safe food. An organization’s food safety system needs to take into account a number of challenges managers face. These include operating in a multicultural environment, high personnel turnover, low pay potential, and literacy issues.
Training of employees is critical. It must be simple and effective, and must teach employees how to prepare and serve food in a safe manner. In addition, the manager needs to ensure that employees actually use the techniques they have been taught.
Some key personal hygiene practices include proper hand washing at appropriate times; using gloves when handling ready-to-eat foods, while recognizing that gloves do not negate the need to wash hands; limiting jewelry during food preparation to a plain wedding band; wearing clean clothing; wearing hair restraints; washing and sanitizing the thermometer prior to taking a temperature reading; restricting sick employees; and proper cleaning and sanitizing of equipment.
Receiving and Storage Processes Critical
Food service operations should purchase food from approved sources. A small operation can do this by using a reputable distributor that uses a quality and food safety assurance process. Large food service organizations have their own quality and food safety processes.
Receiving and storing processes are critical for food service operations, since mistakes made during this process can prove costly. Products, especially those that are refrigerated and frozen, should be received and stored rapidly to avoid temperature abuse. A number of critical checks must be accomplished during this process. These include ensuring the truck’s cleanliness, confirming that the correct items are received, looking for damage to any of the cases, and ensuring that the food was maintained at the proper temperature during transport.
Most distributors will work with the food service operation to schedule deliveries that avoid busy periods in the operations schedule. This allows for prompt storage of food upon receipt. During the receiving process, items should be marked with a use by date to ensure proper rotation of inventory.
Time, Temperature Controls
Time and temperature controls provide effective strategies to control the presence of microorganisms in food. As a result, food service operations can be classified as one of three major processes—food preparation without a cooking step, preparation for same day of service, and complex food preparation.
This classification is determined by how many times the food product passes through the danger zone of 41ºF to 140ºF (see Figure 1, left). Since temperature monitoring is a critical part of the control process, all food service establishments must implement a procedure to properly calibrate their thermometers.
Food preparation without a cooking step includes foods that do not pass completely through the danger zone. If the product is not immediately served after preparation, it must be rapidly chilled to a temperature below 40ºF. The processing steps typically are receive, store, prepare, chill, hold, and serve.
A large number of raw and ready-to-eat products are consumed cold, including salads, raw oysters, sashimi, deli meats, pasteurized milk, and cheese. Because there is no heating step to kill microorganisms in these food items, food service operations need to prevent the growth of potentially pathogenic microorganisms. In addition, they need to take precautions to prevent cross contamination with equipment or other foods, as well as the contamination of the food by employees. These products should be purchased from approved suppliers to guarantee their safety and quality.
When same-day-of-service foods are prepared, they pass through the temperature danger zone once. The food is typically cooked, which involves rapid heating, and is then held hot until serving. The cooking step destroys any pathogenic microorganisms, and the hot holding step prevents spore-forming pathogens from germinating and growing. The typical processing steps are receive, store, prepare, cook, hot hold, and serve.
Complex food preparation includes foods that pass through the temperature danger zone two or more times. In this scenario, the typical processing steps include receive, store, prepare, cook, cool, reheat, hot hold, and serve.
Complex food preparation is used when food products are prepared 24 hours before serving. The key to ensuring that the food is safe is to prevent recontamination of the food with microorganisms after the cooling step and to minimize the time the food is at unsafe temperatures.
Equipment and Facilities
The FDA survey of food service establishments indicated that issues regarding maintenance of the premises are not major risk factors in either retail establishments or restaurants. The same survey indicated, however, that these establishments did not take effective actions to prevent cross contamination.
There should be adequate separation of raw food from ready-to-eat food. Utensils and food preparation surfaces should be properly cleaned and sanitized. Some of the areas that need special attention with regard to cleaning and sanitizing include cutting boards, food preparation areas, and specialized equipment such as slicers and mixers.
Employees need to be taught that food preparation areas must be cleaned and sanitized and that the sanitizing step is not a substitute for cleaning. Restaurants and retail establishments need to properly label and store chemicals such as cleaners and sanitizers.
Resources For the Food Service Industry
Various professional associations and government agencies provide training and other resources to assist food service managers in developing an effective food safety management system.
The American Society for Quality (ASQ) offers an HACCP auditor certification. The certified HACCP auditor demonstrates that the professional understands a HACCP-based system and the principles of management system auditing. An auditor becomes certified by passing a written examination and demonstrating appropriate work experience. More information on this certification can be obtained on the ASQ Web site at www.asq.org.
The International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) maintains copyrights on 11 food safety icons (see Figure 2, p. 40). These icons can be used in non-commercial training and educational materials without specific authorization from IAFP as long as proper credit is given to the association. Individuals wanting to use these symbols for commercial use should contact the IAFP. More information on the symbols can be obtained from the IAFP Web site at www.foodprotection.org.
The National Restaurant Association Education Foundation offers the ServSafe Food Safety and ServSafe Alcohol certifications for food service managers. More information can be obtained at www.servsafe.com.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a large number of educational materials that can be used as part of a training program in safe food handling. One of the food safety education efforts centers on the proper cooking of raw meat products and involves Thermy, an educational cartoon character. Educational material is available in both English and Spanish (see Figure 3, above). Information on using the USDA’s food safety educational material can be found at the following Web site: www.fsis.usda.gov/food_safety_education/ thermy/index.asp.
The FD maintains an extensive site on food safety in the food service industry at www.cfsan.fda.gov/~ear/retail.html. This Web site offers a direct link to the 2005 Food Code. The 1997, 1999, and 2001 editions of the Food Code can be found at http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/foodcode.html.
In addition, the FDA publishes “Managing Food Safety: A Manual for the Voluntary Use of HACCP Principles for Operators of Food Service and Retail Establishments.” This document can be found on the following Web site: www.cfsan.fda.gov/ ~dms/hret2toc.html.
Surak is the principal of Surak and Associates, providing consulting for food safety and quality management systems, auditing management systems, designing and implementing process control systems, and implementing Six Sigma and business analytics systems. He is a fellow of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and serves on the ASQ’s board for the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Division. Reach him at email@example.com.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA Report on the Occurrence of Foodborne Illness Risk Factors in Selected Institutional Foodservice, Restaurant, and Retail Food Store Facility Types (2004). FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Available at: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/ ~dms/retrsk2.html. Accessed October 5, 2007.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 2005 Food Code. FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Available at: http://www.cfsan. fda.gov/~dms/fc05-toc.html. Accessed October 5, 2007.