Monday, November 1, 2010

FOOD SMARTS: Food Safety for Real

There is no better place to start a series food safety articles in Foodservice Monthly than to begin at the beginning. I have observed lately that many new restaurant owners buy a new restaurant and are so excited to have a new business, that they sometimes forget the basics.

I’ve seen new owners buy two fryers and not even have their menus developed yet. It’s a little bit like that old expression, “buying the saddle, before the horse.” I notice that many owners as they go through the process to open up are so bogged down with details from restaurant design, buying equipment, purchasing POS systems, deciding how many taps to install, credit card processing and complying with Health Department requirements, that they lose sight of some of the tenets of running a well-managed operation: To serve Safe Food and to have Safe Staff. I am going to say that Food Safety Training is key to success … that’s my business.  But let’s get real here.

How many of you have ever had a foodborne illness? I am willing to venture all of you!  The reality is that some of you might not have realized it was a foodborne illness and thought it was a case of the “stomach flu” going about. The CDC reported recently that one out of every three people worldwide have a food borne illness each year.  Statistically in the USA, approximately 76 million people report a foodborne illness each year. I and most experts venture that the numbers are much higher. Let’s get real … remember the last time you had a foodborne illness, did you really report it to your local Health Department? I didn’t’ think so.  We are too busy to add something else to our list of “to do’s. Of those 76 million foodborne illness incidents, 320,000 people end up hospitalized as a result and between 5-10 thousand people die each year in the USA as a result of a foodborne illness. Perhaps statistically, 5-10 thousand deaths a year due to foodborne illnesses in a country with a population of 360 million initially doesn’t sound too bad.  But, the reality is that just one death is way too many – especially if it is preventable. There are so many ways to check out of this world, that the truth be told, it’s a travesty to think one can go due to something as simple as “Whoops, I forgot to wash those spinach plants.”

First, let’s recognize what is a foodborne illness. A foodborne illness is an illness or disease carried or transmitted to people by contaminated food, water or other people.  Contamination is basically a harmful substance in the food that should not be there and that’s what makes us sick. The FDA has identified that there are three types of contamination:  Biological, Chemical and Physical Contamination. Biological contamination is the biggest source of foodborne illnesses. The CDC says that more than “250 different foodborne diseases have been described. Most of these diseases are infections, caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can be foodborne. Other diseases are poisonings, caused by harmful toxins or chemicals that have contaminated the food, for example, poisonous mushrooms. These different diseases have many different symptoms, so there is no one "syndrome" that is foodborne illness. However, the microbe or toxin enters the body through the gastrointestinal tract, and often causes the first symptoms there, so nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea are common symptoms in many foodborne diseases.”

One origin of a virus is feces. We recognize hepatitis A and norovirus as two viruses associated with salad and shellfish. Salad and shellfish are major culprits of hepatitis A and norovirus, because of their high possibility of touching feces: shellfish in sewage water for example and salad because the crops are not always irrigated with safe water supplies. I hate to be the one to tell you, but if you get a foodborne virus, basically you got it because you touched someone else’s feces.

We recognize the most well-known bacteria names and associate them with the most risky foods, i.e. salmonella with poultry and e-coli with hamburger and salad. I am not a biologist as are not most of you. I really don’t care what the illness is called, the symptoms are primarily the same: upset stomach, nausea, vomiting and or diarrhea.  The symptoms vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration which is not pleasant for any population, but those in the high risk population it can lead to cardiac problems that they might not have had otherwise. When one is dehydrated, the heart has to work extra hard, which can affect one’s pulse rate and blood pressure. This explains how a four-year-old with a lowered immune system can result with a cardiac problem that they would not have had otherwise.

I know times have changed since I first started in the restaurant business as a bus girl over 25 years ago. We didn’t have this knowledge or education back then where it was acceptable for us to smoke in the kitchen and being told by the owner to safe the uneaten bread for the next table. We know better now. Maybe your establishment has undercooked chicken for the last 10 years and nothing has gone wrong that you know of … ?!  The point is that we know better now.

Your cooks are not looking at a customer before they cook their food. Your customers do not have a sticker on their foreheads saying, “I’m a sick person, please be careful,” so we have to implement proper procedures and precautions at all times and make it become a habit, not just a passing thought. If you don’t really think that much about food safety, you should at least consider your bottom line. What good are all those beautiful fryers, the best restaurant design in the world, your POS systems, how many taps you have and who cares who you use for credit card processing if you have sick customers?

In the next stories, we will look at what we can do to avoid foodborne illnesses bit by bit and how the front and the back of the house are both responsible for our customers’ health.

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Juliet Bodinetz-Rich is the executive director of Bilingual Hospitality Training Solutions and has over 25 years industry and training experience. Her team of instructors’ specialty is food safety and ServSafe training in English or in Spanish and writing HACCP Plans in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. Metro Area. or 443-838-7561

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