Best Practices in the Food Service Industry
According to the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA), foodservice outlets are facilities that serve meals and snacks for immediate consumption on site (food away from home). Commercial foodservice sites include cafeterias, fast food chains, restaurants, and caterers. Many places that prepare, serve, and sell food to the general public are also considered in this food category which accounts for the majority of consumer food spending in North America.
Are we sure that food purchased at the counter of our favourite deli or the kale salad eaten at the pub was prepared under sanitary conditions? If we think of fast food versus full service establishments, which have the best control over food safety practices.
Living in a big city like Toronto, I’ve witnessed some questionable food safety practices at food service establishments and on occasion, felt the after effects of poor practices with bouts of foodborne illness.
Have you ever stood and observed the behaviour of employees in a deli? When you work as a food safety auditor, it’s not easy to switch off the brain and just buy food. Every move is analysed and a mental note kept.
One day I stood ordering a meal at the counter of a well-known, up-market deli. The food in the refrigerated display case looked appetizing and well presented. Several young people worked at the counter and I paid attention to their actions. One accidentally dropped a pair of tongs on the floor as he was about to serve my food. He calmly pick up the tongs with gloved hands, flipped it into a bucket with other tongs (presumably a bucket with sanitizer), and reached for another pair of tongs to continue serving me.
My dilemma was whether to start a training session, or complain and ask to see the manager, or complain online and send an alert to all consumers who patronize the establishment. What food handlers do in front of consumers, we assume, is their BEST behaviour. I won’t say what action I took, however, I won’t buy anything from them again. My neighbourhood in the city is ideal for spotting non-compliances because of the plethora of restaurants and fast food joints. Waiters can be seen smoking at the side doors in their kitchen aprons, with gloves still on their hands. One would hope they change the gloves on re-entering the kitchen… however cloth aprons probably would not be changed.
A small family owned bakeries make baked goods from scratch or bring them in from large commissaries to display at the shop front. One day I noticed some flies happily dancing on jam filled donuts in a shop window during my morning walk. The following morning the same donuts were on display in the shop window. They had not been sold the day before, and I’m not sure where the happy flies were resting at that time. It was ‘food for thought’.
Another anomaly I witnessed was at a large airline catering commissary. An employee who was hastily packing dry snacks and packaged cutlery onto food trays, accidentally dropped some cutlery on the ground, picked it up and continued packing.
“Is this normal?” I asked the QA manager who was embarrassed.
Behind the scenes of some food counters at the mall can also make one stay clear of food courts. One server told me it wasn’t necessary to wash hands after handling money because she had just washed a frying pan with those same hands and used soap! And the list goes on…
Could this be labelled as employee negligence, lack of training, no management commitment to food safety or a combination of all? This leads to the question of who is responsible for checks and balances in the food service industry.
Management should responsibly implement basic good manufacturing practices (GMPs) even in the food service setting. These programs have great relevance, since the food is sold directly to the consumer without further cooking to destroy pathogens. GMPs include:
- Cleaning and sanitising
- Pest management
- Employee hygiene requirements
- Staff training
- Allergen control
- Processes to prevent cross contamination
- Storage and transport
- Commitment to food safety – Suppliers of ingredients
- Maintenance programs for equipment and utensils
- Diet quality and nutrition labelling
Employee hygiene requirements and staff training make a world of difference in protecting consumer health and keeping food safe. Training should include the importance of hand washing with adequate hand wash facilities provided. In addition the use of hair nets, gloves, aprons and other protective equipment should be included in training while providing adequate protective gear.
Food handling for preservation and safety, like monitoring cook temperatures and storing food at temperatures outside the product danger zones – cold storage (less than 4C) or hot storage (greater than 60C) is basic knowledge for keeping food safe. In some cities, food handlers are required to attend a training course on food handling practices and take an exam to attain a food handler’s certificate.
When GMPs are implemented and the staff is trained, another layer of controls can be added, like routine inspections by Public Health Inspectors in the district.
It’s sometimes necessary to have government oversight for some businesses to put food safety first.
Without enforcement and the threat of fines for non-compliance, some business owners may take short cuts, putting consumer health at risk. If store owners and managers are dedicated to establishing and managing a food safety culture throughout the business then enforcement would not be necessary.
Wouldn’t it be great if we never had to worry about Joe’s Diner at the corner or food handlers at the mall?
If a strong food safety culture exists, even in a fast food business, consumers can feel confident in the food consumed. This would lead to repeat business, referrals, and business stability.