Monday, November 22, 2010

Food Smarts - Happy & Safe Thanksgiving

I remember moving to America as a child with my family and all of us embracing this wonderful holiday that we have here called “Thanksgiving.”  My mum learned how to cook a turkey (which was so wonderfully huge to us carnivores), make stuffing and incorporate our English & New Zealand side dishes to make this American tradition special to our roots us well.  I remember her diligently reviewing  the supermarket fliers to get the best deal on the price per pound for the turkey, then getting all of the shopping done, which always included that frozen turkey on sale (cheap, cheap, cheap) and all the other fixings to make the stuffing and gravy.   

Then the night before, the show would start.  She would pull that big bird out of the freezer and leave it in the kitchen sink overnight and then get up first thing in the morning to wrestle with the bird to butter it up and cover it in herbs and stuff it with her special concoction for the stuffing.  We always knew to stay out of her way whilst she was wrestling with the bird.  We were always comatose after the feast.  The Thanksgiving meal is a wonderful American tradition that really celebrates being thankful for family.  How many of you have the same traditions?

Now that I’ve been teaching ‘Food Smarts’ for over a decade now, I recognize some gross mistakes were made by my lovely mother.  My, how times have changed.  A turkey is the perfect potentially hazardous food as it is high in moisture, protein and has a low ph or low acidity.  This is a very happy environment for bacteria.  When my mum left the frozen turkey in the sink overnight, the exterior defrosted first and that’s obviously where bacteria can develop initially.  As more time goes on in the Temperature Danger Zone (41°F -135° F) or best known in layman’s terms as “room temperature” the turkey is a perfect environment for bacterial growth on its surface even though it could still be frozen solid in the middle.    There are four acceptable ways to defrost food according to the FDA Food Code.  1) Under refrigeration, 2) under running potable water not higher than 70°F (notice – I said the water has to be running – bacteria loves to grow in still water), 3) in a microwave, but only if you are going to cook it immediately or 4) as part of the cooking process.  Considering the size of a big turkey, the best way to defrost it – is in your refrigerator.  I have been told that for every 5 lbs, one should leave it in the fridge 24 hours to defrost.  Translation:  20 lb turkey should be taken out of the freezer and put in your fridge at least 4-5 days ahead of Thanksgiving Day to have enough time to defrost.

The other biggest mistake my mum would make preparing this amazing feast, is actually putting the stuffing inside the turkey.  Sometimes I joke with my students, that they “should do as I say, and not as I do.”  I remember personally about 8 years ago, I was in charge of cooking the Thanksgiving meal.  I knew because I teach food safety that the FDA doesn’t recommend that you stuff anything for cooking.  But, as a cook, I was conflicted as I always believed that if the stuffing was not inside the turkey whilst cooking that it wouldn’t turn out as tasty.  I finally followed my own teachings as recommended by the FDA, and voila, stuffing was just as delish!  But what truly flabbergasted me was how that big turkey cooked in hours shorter cooking time than what I was used to.  Another great benefit of not putting the stuffing in the bird was that the meat turned out juicier and not dried out.  Think about it, no stuffing in the bird means the heat is not being retained in the cooking process by the stuffing, thus resulting in less cooking time and the bird came out juicier without being over-cooked.

I would recommend a home cook to purchase a thermometer for this dish if for none else.  Salmonella can be harboring on that delicious turkey and make a lot of people sick if left undercooked.  Your turkey is properly cooked when it reaches 165°F.  Check the temperature by inserting the probe into the thickest part and if you do continue to stuff the turkey that means in the middle of the stuffing. 

Remember to wash your hands often, especially after touching the raw turkey and before touching anything else.  Don’t use the same utensils for different foods and remember don’t double dip when tasting the food.

Whatever traditions you have incorporated into preparation of your Thanksgiving Feast, be safe and enjoy!  Happy Thanksgiving to all

Monday, November 1, 2010

Food Safety and My Three Biggest Pet Peeves!

At BHTS, we pride ourselves that our students become our children or our families and as proud parents we only want them to succeed. Many times, our students want to show  us their lovely kitchens and we observe three major mistakes that just break our hearts, all falling under “cross contamination.” My personal three biggest pet peeves are:

  • 1) Servers grabbing glasses by the rim.
  • 2) Kitchen employees eating while prepping foods.
  • 3) Improper food storage in the refrigeration units.
Cross Contamination is defined as: “the transfer of microorganisms from one food or surface to another.”

The biggest error I see in any restaurant as a customer and as an instructor is: employees grabbing glasses by the rim. This is my biggest personal pet peeve, although, I look
back on the past and yes, I did this myself. As a bartender, I would grab glasses by the rim to make the drinks. I should have been more aware to always grab the glasses at all times by the base or rim.

The second biggest error I see is prep cooks eating while prepping foods. Please remember we, at BHTS are not the “police officers” and we are here to help. Imagine the proud owner or executive chef giving us a tour of their beautiful kitchen and there are the prep cooks working diligently to prep the vegetables and … eating at the same time?!?  I am sure if we were to ask this prep cook that they might not even be aware that they just plopped something in their mouth. They probably just did it without even thinking about it! It’s an indirect way of spitting into someone’s food as the saliva from the prep cook’s mouth gets on their hand as they plop the food in their mouth and then keep working … thus contaminating everything they touch. I don’t think the prep cooks do this   consciously and as a boss you have to remind them with proper training and supervision.

The third biggest mistake I see is: Incorrect Food Storage in refrigeration units. I see so many restaurants that will place fresh hamburger on the second shelves and that   hamburger juice can drip down onto a ready-to-eat food below. The FDA has determined the correct order of food storage is based upon their danger. I interpret the food’s danger as defined by their required minimum internal cooking temperature. Store food in your refrigeration units based upon their dangers/minimum internal cooking temps in the following order from top to bottom: ready-to-eat-foods (0°F), seafood, whole cuts of beef, pork (145°F), ground meats, ground fish (155°F), and whole or ground poultry (165°F).

Why would you place poultry above hamburgers? The chicken juice that could fall down onto the hamburger below will only be cooked to 155°F and you have to cook that chicken juice to at least a minimum cooking temperature of 165°F.

I hope my three biggest pet peeves help you to look at your own restaurant from a different perspective. Sometimes, we get so engrossed in our work, that we become blind to the obvious. I recommend that you step back and really look at your establishment with a different perspective as if you were a health inspector or even a customer. You will be amazed at what you will see and can improve!

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

FOOD SMARTS: Consumers: Demand a ‘Call to Action’ With Latest Lettuce E. Coli 0145 Outbreak

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and its state health partners have confirmed, “that the strain of E. coli O145 detected by the New York State Public Health Laboratory, Wadsworth Center, in Albany, in an unopened bag of shredded romaine lettuce distributed by Freshway Foods, matches the outbreak strain of E. coli O145.”

As of May 12, the outbreak is responsible for causing at least 23 cases (plus seven probable), of which three people are in “critical condition with potentially life threatening complications due to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS is a serious condition in which the body’s blood-clotting mechanisms are altered, causing blocked circulation or bleeding in the brain or kidneys.”  

The Ohio plant, Freshway Foods Inc., has voluntarily recalled chopped/shredded romaine lettuce products which might be contaminated. Freshway Foods, Inc. processes and distributes lettuce from small growers in large quantities to institutions and grocery stores. The recalled lettuce is under the brand names Freshway Foods and Imperial Sysco Brands. The lettuce has also been sold as ‘grab and go’ salads from Kroger, Giant Eagle, Marsh Grocery Stores and Ingles Markets. The tainted lettuce with a use-by-date of May 12 was sold in 23 states including Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC. Freshway consumers have been asked to call Freshway Foods’ information desk at 888-361-7106 (8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Eastern Time, M-F) or visit their website for updates: For the complete Freshway Foods recall: 

Researching this outbreak has raised several questions and many concerns. First, let’s distinguish and understand what is E. coli 0145? There are six harmful E. coli strains which produce the Shiga toxin. The origin of this bacteria is fecal. We all should be familiar with the very famous Shiga-toxin producing E. coli strain called E. coli 0157:H7. It is found primarily on hamburger meat and was responsible for many outbreaks including 1994’s Jack in the Box which sickened seven hundred and caused four deaths.  What shocks me is that the USDA and food producers only test for this strain, E. coli 0157:H7 and does not test for other strains in our foods because the other strains are considered ‘adulterants’, a harmful additive by the FDA.

How does E. coli 0145 get on lettuce? Remembering that the source of E. coli 0145 is fecal matter, there are several ways feces can reach the lettuce:

  • Runoff water from a pasture where cattle are kept
  • Airborne particles from cattle farm via wind to the farm
  • Wild life feces
  • Humans harvesting the lettuce
  • Irrigation practices 
As of today, May 13, the origin of this outbreak is still being investigated. It looks like the source is being pinpointed to a specific farm in Yuma, Ariz. As of May 12, the Freshway Foods Inc. plant has been cleared by the FDA of the E. coli 0145. This confuses me. How can it be found in their bags of lettuce, but not be found in their plant? Even if the source is the farm, it has to get in the bag via the plant?  

It could have been prevented

The maddening situation is that it is possible this outbreak could have been prevented.  As consumers, there should be a ‘call to action’ for changes made by farmers and produce providers:

  • Farms should be a certain distance away from cattle farms so feces particles containing E. coli 0145 cannot contaminate produce via runoff or airborne particles.
  • Farmers should not be allowed to use unsafe waters mixed with sewage for crop irrigation.
  • Porta Pottys and portable handwashing stations should be required on all farms by law. It is incomprehensible that it is not required by law currently.
  • It should be mandatory that plants test each lot of produce for all six strains of E. coli before offering for sale.
As a consumer:

  • We should ask all of our vendors to confirm that they are buying from a plant that provides a guarantee and confirms they have third party audits. 
  • Always wash your produce; regardless if its labeled pre-washed.
  • Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods.
  • Wash hands properly with soap and water (minimum: 10 to 15 seconds) after using the bathroom, changing diapers, during and after visiting fairs, petting zoos, hospitals or nursing homes.
Juliet Bodinetz-Rich is the executive director of Bilingual Hospitality Training 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

Food Smarts: Food Safety and Warning Labels … ?


You have been in business for 10 years, 15 years, 30 years, or just starting out. You have your menu designed and you have complied with all Health Department requirements. You are open for business. You have taken your Food Service Manager Certification course and now you are petrified. What if your customers get sick? What if someone dies? Are they or their family are going to come after you in court? You now reconsider taking oysters on the half shell off of the menu and what about those rare steaks or eggs over easy that don’t meet minimum internal cooking temperatures?  OMG, what about that 92-year-old customer who comes in every Tuesday for your half-price burger special and orders it with the works – rare!?

Are you going to refuse your customer his usual order of the rare hamburger with a side of eggs-over- easy or those raw oysters on the half shell?  Should you make him sign a legal waiver before he eats his risky food order? No, of course not, but what can you do to protect yourself?

Have you ever thought about putting an advisory label on your menu? Some local, state or national governments have done the thinking for you. The Wikipedia Free Dictionary defines a warning label as “a label attached to an item, or contained in an item's instruction manual, warning the user about risks associated with the use of the item as intended by the manufacturer or seller. Most of them are intended to limit civil liability in lawsuits against the item's manufacturer or seller. That sometimes results in labels which for some people seem to state the obvious.” 

We can thank the 1994 lawsuit against McDonald’s for our bigger warning labels on our coffee cups, “Caution: Hot.” Legitimate and frivolous lawsuits have made many products you purchase in this day and age have some very strange warning labels like: “Warning: This product contains nuts.” on a container of peanuts, to “Do not eat packet” found on Homel Pepperoni and looking at my curling iron, it states: “Warning: Keep away from children” and “Caution: This product can burn eyes.”

One of my favorite clients goes straight to the point and on his menus has put the following warnings: “Eat rare steak at your own risk” and “Eat eggs-over-easy at your own risk.” Some jurisdictions require language that conforms to more serious legalese.  We can laugh, but they are on the right path to protecting their establishment and themselves.

Consider protecting yourself and your establishment by putting a consumer advisory on your menu.  An example:  “Those in high risk populations, i.e. the elderly, pregnant women, young children or sick – please consult with your physician before consuming … (list all potentially hazardous ingredients from your menu here i.e.)  under cooked eggs, alfalfa sprouts, raw shellfish, undercooked hamburger meat, non-pasteurized juice.”

The advisory label can also be a tool to warn those with the eight most common food allergens: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat.

How far will our industry need to go with warning labels on our food? That is a much debated question now. There was much talk that “Fast Food” should have warning labels like cigarette packets. We realize that there are some insane warning labels out there, but for the time being, it might be smart to be ahead of the issue by placing a consumer advisory on your menu. Talk to your chef and your staff – find out what they are hearing from experts and your customers. We all know someone with a serious allergy or medical condition – it is not as far-fetched as it once appeared to be.

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Juliet Bodinetz-Rich is the executive director of Bilingual Hospitality Training 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