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

Cross-Contamination Conundrum

It takes five years to build a quality business and five seconds to destroy it.

by Megan Bradley

In today’s fast-paced world, we often don’t stop to think that the meal we’re eating may be our last. It’s not a pleasant thought and it is easier to dismiss the notion as something that happens to other people in a far-off place. However, each year it is a reality for 5,200 Americans and their families.

Even if it doesn’t end in death, foodborne illnesses affect almost all Americans at least once a year, 76 million illnesses annually, federal agencies estimate. Usually, these illnesses are mild and won’t slow down a healthy adult, but 20 percent of foodborne illnesses are severe enough to require hospitalization. On top of that, 2 to 3 percent of these acute illnesses develop life-long complications such as hemolytic uremic syndrome. One of the leading reasons so many people get sick from food each year is cross-contamination.

So, if cross-contamination kills, then why do we let it happen?

Nobody would arrive at work in a restaurant with the deliberate intention of making others sick, especially if it could result in the death of a customer. Unfortunately, some restaurants have unintentionally caused customers to become ill from the food they have served and some patrons were unable to recover from their illness. For the offending restaurants, it’s a tough lesson to learn and the price they have paid is steep.

One large chain spent $58 million settling lawsuits after a foodborne outbreak and saw sales decrease by 5 percent. Another chain could only watch as the value of their stock plummeted by 61 percent after they were implicated in a foodborne outbreak. The damage also extends into other areas of society through the loss of productivity. It is estimated that E. coli contagion alone costs the U.S. millions each year. Thankfully, most restaurants who have caused foodborne illnesses take the lessons they have learned seriously and become the models of food safety.

By definition, cross-contamination is the transfer of disease-causing microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses, from one food to another. This transfer can happen a variety of ways. Contaminated food may come in direct contact with other foods or one food may drip contaminated juices on another food. Another way cross-contamination can happen is for uncontaminated food to come in contact with a contaminated utensil, piece of equipment, or work surface. Food workers are the last means of cross-contamination. Handling foods with dirty hands or wearing soiled uniforms can result in the spread of pathogens throughout the kitchen.

Often, the cause of illnesses linked to ice is handling ice with contaminated hands or utensils. Contaminants are then on the ice, which can be further spread to beverages or foods stored on ice, such as in salad bars.

As food travels through the kitchen, there are many opportunities for it to become of cross-contamination. In receiving, leaky boxes and broken cartons may spill contaminants into other cases. If ready-to-eat foods are stored under raw meats in the cooler, juices from the meat may drip on the foods ready to be served and contaminate them.

However, the greatest threat of cross-contamination foods face is in the prep area of the kitchen. Not properly washing and sanitizing cutting boards and knives between tasks is an enormous problem. Using an unsanitized towel to clean a food prep table can spread bacteria all over the surface of the table, which can then be passed to foods. Employees who do not wash their hands between tasks, especially between handling raw meats and cooked foods, are very likely to be the culprit if a foodborne illness occurs. Putting cooked meats back in the container that held them when they were raw is a disaster waiting to happen.

However, preparation is not the last stop for the food. It must also survive being served, an area of great concern for restaurants with self-service food bars. If the same serving utensil is used to serve many different foods, it could be spreading harmful germs from one container of food to another.

Combating the Problem

As large as the hazard of cross-contamination is, there are ways to combat the problem. First and foremost, proper training of all food handlers must take place. Employees need to understand what they can do to prevent the spread of pathogens. Teach employees how to wash their hands and how to effectively clean and sanitize food contact surfaces and utensils and explain why. Demonstrate how quickly germs can be spread in the kitchen by using products like GloGerm, which contain simulated germs that glow under UV light. Encourage employees to follow proper procedures, especially during busy times when they might be tempted to cut corners. Hang posters throughout the kitchen to remind employees of proper food safety practices.

Second, provide employees with tools that will help them to be successful in preventing cross-contamination. The use of color-coded equipment is an excellent way to implement what employees learn during training. Create zones in the kitchen for the different types of food prepared and assign a different color to each zone. For example, if one zone is for preparing produce, then only green cutting boards and knives should be found there. Assign other colors for each of the different types of raw meat - poultry, beef and seafood. Provide color-coded knife racks for keeping different colored knives separate during storage.

Color-coded cleaning equipment, such as cutting board brushes, will not only encourage employees to clean, but will limit the spread of microorganisms that could occur if a common brush is used to clean all equipment. In the same manner, provide color-coded serving utensils in service areas to limit the practice of using the same utensil to serve every food.

Lastly, organize storage areas, such as coolers, in a manner that will lessen the chance of foodborne illnesses even if foods drip on each other. Two methods can be employed here. To begin with, store foods in the proper food safety order on shelving. Foods that will receive minimal or no further preparation should be placed on the top shelf. This would include foods that are cooked, but waiting for service and ready-to eat foods such as produce. On the lower shelves, place your raw meats in an order where those that are cooked to lower internal temperatures are stored above those required to be cooked to higher temperatures to kill bacteria. For instance, raw seafood (cooked to 145ºF) should be stored above raw poultry (cooked to 165ºF). The other method is to use color-coded storage boxes. This allows employees to determine at a glance where to place foods in the cooler to ensure that the food safety order for storage is being followed.

It takes concerted effort to keep food safe, but the rewards of this effort are immense. The trust and repeat business of customers are earned and expensive lawsuits are avoided. Taking a proactive stance on food safety shields against the perils of a foodborne infection outbreak. Employees will be less likely to make the mistakes that commonly lead to foodborne illnesses if they are trained properly and given the tools they need. Follow the example of those restaurants that have learned the importance of safe food the hard way and make food safety a priority today.

Ice: The Forgotten Food

It’s easy to forget about keeping ice safe among the rush of kitchen life, but ice has been linked to several foodborne outbreaks. It’s a common belief that the cold temperature of ice kills bacteria. However, bacteria in ice are “preserved“ until conditions are more favorable for growth. Viruses are another threat because cold does not affect them at all.

Often, the cause of illnesses linked to ice is handling ice with contaminated hands or utensils. Contaminants are then on the ice, which can be further spread to beverages or foods stored on ice, such as in salad bars.

A few simple practices can keep ice safe. First, use dedicated containers for transporting ice. Avoid using containers that also are used for storing food or chemicals. Hanging ice containers upside down keeps the containers dry and off the floor, and prevents nesting, a common way buckets become unclean.

Second, provide an ice scoop at each location where an employee dispenses ice. Train employees to store the scoop outside the ice bin and not in the ice. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, clean and sanitize every utensil used in ice and the ice machine regularly.

Megan Bradley is a technical advisor and certified food safety professional for Daydots (Fort Worth , Texas). Reach her at 800-458-3687.

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