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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, December/January 2005

Avoiding Physical Contamination

An active role can minimize or even eliminate accidental and intentional contamination.

by Megan Bradley

If you ask family and friends about strange objects found in food, I’m sure you would hear many horror stories. Recently, I found a metal staple and a one-inch piece of glass in food I ordered at local restaurants. I have also heard reports about two Florida deputies finding shards of glass in their hamburgers.

These examples remind me that there is an often-overlooked food safety issue: Physical contamination.

A physical contaminant is anything that can be visibly seen and is not part of the food originally. It is unclear how widespread this problem is because most incidents do not cause major injuries and go unreported. However, it is more common than expected, and many customers are lost due to this. What can be done to prevent this?

Check Your Employees

To begin with, restaurants need to make sure that their employees are not part of the problem. Perhaps the most common, and usually undetected, contaminant is hair. A person typically loses 50 to 75 hairs every day. Some lost hairs will find their way into food. Employees should wear a hair restraint, such as a hat or hairnet, at all times when working around food.

Restaurants also need to insist that employees keep their fingernails short, clean and unpolished. Long and false fingernails can break off and end up in food.

Jewelry should be limited to a smooth wedding band. Earrings, pendants, gems and chains can easily come loose and can end up in a customer’s plate.

Ensure Building is Pest-Free

Secondly, ensure that the building is free from pests. Nothing is more horrifying to a customer than to find a bug, dead or alive, in his or her food. Cockroaches, rats and mice can get into foods and leave behind droppings. Furry pests can shed hair as well.

To prevent pests from becoming a contamination nightmare, restaurants should have regular visits from pest control operators. Restaurants should follow their advice on how to limit pests’ entrance to the kitchen. By keeping containers tightly covered and placing those on shelves at least six inches off the floor and away from the wall, pests can be denied access to food. Also, flytraps and bug zappers should not be hung in areas where food is prepared.

Although some contamination can be prevented, sometimes food arrives at the back door already contaminated. Eliminating this entirely may be impossible, but using reputable suppliers can control it. Restaurants must take the time to check out suppliers thoroughly. It is important to know their procedures, particularly when it comes to food safety. Find out how they handle complaints of foreign objects in their foods. The type of packaging the supplier uses should also be considered. For instance, if a produce supplier uses metal staples to seal cases, there is risk of having the staples fall into the case and end up in prepared foods.

Employee Sabotage

Another source of contamination that is hard to control is employee sabotage. Stories abound of what employees have done to food. Although managers cannot watch every move that every employee makes, it is important to know the employees. By doing so, managers will learn if any employees are acting suspiciously. Restaurants must be cautious when employees quit or are fired. Disgruntled employees should not be left alone with food.

In spite of all the above precautions, physical contaminants may still find their way into served food. Handling customer complaints promptly and appropriately is imperative. Wait staff should be instructed to find a manager as soon as a complaint is made. Managers should begin investigating the situation by talking with the customer. Be sympathetic to the customer, not defensive. Find out if the customer is injured and needs medical attention. If possible, take the customer’s name and contact information in case follow up is needed. Let the customer know who you are and how to get in touch with the restaurant in case there are questions or problems after leaving the building. Showing concern about the customer will demonstrate goodwill towards them and, hopefully, make them feel more comfortable about returning. After the customer is taken care of, the source of the contaminant should be located and problems corrected. By taking an active role, physical contamination can be prevented.

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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