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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, June/July 2005

Contamination-Control... A Never Ending Task

by Daniel M. Zaura

An ever-watchful eye has been cast on the food processing and preparation industries. Consumers are carefully examining each forkful of salad and each bite of a hamburger, prompted by the recent finger pointing by a California woman over allegations that part of a human digit was discovered in a bowl of chili served up at a fast-food restaurant.

Although not as dramatic as a body part, common items such as a piece of glass, a hairpin, cigarette butt or a bandage can easily find their way into food products if workers are not attentive to proper procedures. Any of these, while not becoming a headline grabber as a finger would become, can still result in legal issues and loss of business.

By its very definition, contamination is the "unintended presence"of harmful substances or microorganisms in food. It is "unintended"because no well-intentioned cook or restaurant operator would deliberately serve contaminated food. Therefore, it is the well-educated and informed food industry worker who is able to recognize potential contamination opportunities.

The most common sources of food contamination in a prep area include infected employees; unsafe employees; contaminated supplies; cleaning chemicals; pesticides; medications; personal items such as pens, jewelry, combs, etc.; tools, nuts, bolts and other equipment-repair items; hair from the employee's head, arms or face; and an employee sneezing, coughing or scratching.

Note that most, if not all, of these potential sources of contamination are the result of personnel issues, leading to the irrefutable fact: The most difficult contamination to control is caused by people.

INFECTED AND UNSAFE EMPLOYEES

As a food manager, you must be certain that you and your staff have received the necessary training regarding food safety. Employees need to be aware of the fact that if they come to work while they're ill, not only may they jeopardize the health of their fellow employees, but they may also contaminate the food. Symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, vomiting, sore throat or jaundice should be recognized. These employees either need to be sent home or restricted from working with or around foods.

Training for both new and tenured employees regarding safety in food preparation is a must, covering both personal and food safety issues. Recommended training courses such as the ServSafe program from the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF; Chicago, Ill.) should be administered to each employee every year.

CONTAMINATED SUPPLIES/CLEANING CHEMICALS

The food safety professional and his or her staff need to be able to recognize any potential problems with their supplies. A thorough knowledge of such business functions as food purchasing, receiving and storage must be put into practice every day.

Quite often, food is received past its expiration date or there is mold growth evident. Also, there could be evidence that frozen or refrigerated foods have undergone temperature abuse during transit. Potentially hazardous foods such as eggs and dairy, meat and poultry, shellfish and fish all have specific guidelines that must be followed to ensure that fresh food is received and stored properly.

An unfortunate but very common practice among small restaurants - as is the case in many households - is the storage of cleaning chemicals with food items. The opportunities for food contamination are great, even with sealed containers, since chemical residues on the outside of the containers can get on and into foods.

All cleaning chemicals should be stored in an area completely away from food, food-contact supplies and equipment, preferably in their own storage area. If storage space is limited, these chemicals should be stored on the opposite end of the room from the food and food supplies. At the very least, under the most cramped conditions, the cleaning products should be kept on the lowest shelves, with food items stored above. The food in storage should be limited to canned items and other foods in impermeable containers.

PESTICIDES

Because of the many restrictions placed on pesticides and pesticide usage, it is recommended that food processors and restaurants employ a professional pest control company, rather than handle this task themselves. Letting an outside service handle the pesticides will ensure that they will be stored correctly (preferably not within the food facility).

One of the worst mistakes a facility's personnel can make is purchasing off-the-shelf bug spray and spraying the kitchen whenever a cockroach or spider is spotted. Chances are that by doing so the well-intentioned workers have contaminated their utensils and food prep surfaces, and most likely, they haven't gotten rid of the pests.

If pest control must be handled in-house, it is imperative that the manufacturers' label directions be followed and that the pesticides are never used in the presence of food, food-contact surfaces or utensils. These pesticides must be kept away from other chemicals, and physically away from food or food storage, ideally in a locked cabinet.

Another possible source of contamination for the food supply is the use of bait in covered bait boxes inside the facility. While legal, this practice is strongly discouraged because the pests could move the bait to a food area, since the bait usually does not take effect immediately.

MEDICATIONS

As part of your kitchen's GMP program, there should be rules in place that prohibit the storage of personal medication at the food prep area. There should be a designated area away, but in close proximity to, the employee work area, especially for employees requiring quick access. The use of inhalers, nasal sprays and other aerosols can become a contaminant if used over a food prep area. Pills and liquids can also accidentally fall into the food when consumed at a workstation.

Employees need to be "up front" about their need for medications, and you, as the manager, should provide them a secure and easily accessible storage place that is not in an area where food is stored or prepared.

EMPLOYEES' PERSONAL ITEMS

Your kitchen's GMPs should also include rules regarding employees' personal items, as well as the wearing of jewelry. Uniforms worn during food production should not have top pockets, since any items stored in the pockets can fall out and into or onto food.

Loose or dangling employee jewelry should not be allowed because of safety reasons, in addition to the fact that it can fall into the food product. Further, rings with stones cannot be cleaned thoroughly enough to eliminate microorganisms that may be present. Usually, the only pieces of jewelry allowed are plain wedding bands and medical alert bracelets, both of which are normally smooth and easily cleanable. The facility's management should provide a secure area where employees can store these items.

TOOLS, NUTS, BOLTS AND REPAIR PARTS

Every so often, food industry equipment requires repair or needs to be replaced or upgraded. When repairs are made, there needs to be a "maintenance for food safety" program in place, which includes a parts and tools reconciliation program. This will help minimize the problem of that extra or missing bolt ending up in a consumer's salad or soup.

Your maintenance department should document the repair, indicate that all parts are accounted for, and you, as manager, must verify this and sign off on it. If your company is a food processor for other food companies, most of them require that such a program be in place and consider this as a major requirement for approval.

HAIR

There are still many food prep companies and restaurants where employees do not wear proper hair covering. While hair in food generally does not cause a foodborne illness, the implications of a consumer finding a hair in his or her entree can be devastating. The customer will lose his or her appetite, will have negative feelings about the eating establishment, and will likely tell friends and acquaintances of the bad experiences.

Employees should wear hair protection wherever there is exposed hair on the head or face. In addition, long sleeves should be required to minimize the chances of hair falling from the workers' arms.

EMPLOYEE SNEEZING AND COUGHING

Employees sneezing or coughing can spread the bacteria staphylococcus onto the food and to other workers. Employees should be instructed as to the appropriate way they can minimize these actions by turning away from the food and other employees, and covering their mouth and face, then washing their hands after this occurs.

Even scratching by a worker can lead to contamination, since the itchy area may be an infected sore, which may harbor the staph bacteria. Hand washing must be stressed after any scratching or incidental contact with the body.

Since most of the situations mentioned in this report have to do with employee actions, it is imperative that proper training regarding food safety, personal hygiene and sanitation be provided for all kitchen staff and managers.

Although the most important procedures any food preparer include the adherence to all the rules regarding food cooking times, temperature requirements and holding temperatures, an equally important factor in food prep remains sanitation and and washing. This alone can prevent many contamination kitchens today. Workers should always remember that the prevention of food contamination in the kitchen is a never-ending task.

Daniel M. Zaura is a senior consultant with ASI Food Safety Consultants (St. Louis, Mo). He is a certified auditor in the FPA-SAFE program and is a certified instructor and exam proctor with the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation (ServSafe). Reach him at 800-477-0778. ext. 113.

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