As warmer weather and summer travel swing into full force, so do cases of foodborne illness, according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.The busy summer travel season can make it difficult for restaurant kitchen staff members to keep up with the many details of food safety—and a slip up in this area can compromise the health of customers, which in turn can lead to a big hit on a restaurant’s bottom line.
“Maintaining a sanitary environment, in both production and service of foods, is key to protecting the health of guests,” said Chef Steve Browe of Paul’s 5th Avenue in Grandview Heights, Ohio, just west of downtown Columbus. “A foodborne illness outbreak is the deepest nightmare of a restaurant operator. Ultimately, an outbreak can ruin a business, first by reducing the daily number of people who frequent the operation, and in time, by building a negative general impression through word of mouth.”
The summer months are especially important to restaurants. In fact, more than two-thirds of tableservice restaurant operators consider tourists important to their business, according to the National Restaurant Association. And they should, since according to the Travel Industry Association of America, dining out is the most popular activity planned by tourists once they reach their final destination.
To ensure that their summertime guests are healthy and happy after they leave the establishment, restaurant owners should be knowledgeable about the types of foodborne illnesses and how to prevent them.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are four commonly recognized foodborne illnesses: Salmonella, E. coli, Norwalk and Norwalk-like viruses, and Campylobacter. One major cause of these illnesses, especially Campylobacter, is cross-contamination, which is defined as the transfer of microorganisms from one location to another.
“By eliminating opportunities for cross-contamination during preparation, storage, production and service, operators can ensure the wholesomeness of their products and maintain the trust of their clientele,” Browe said.
The first line of defense in preventing the spread of illness is hand- washing, and according to the USDA, unwashed hands are a primary cause of foodborne illness outbreaks. For that reason, restaurant workers should wash their hands frequently throughout the day and immediately after handling raw foods.
It’s also important to keep raw and cooked foods separated. This means using different cutting boards and utensils for cooked and raw foods during the preparation process and making sure to clean preparation surfaces after every use. Foods also should be stored properly, at the right temperature and in food-grade packages and containers.
Finally, cleaning and sanitization of dishes, preparation surfaces and even floors can help prevent the spread of disease.
When washing plates and utensils, it’s important to use hot water in the cleaning sink, ideally around 120 degrees Fahrenheit to break up baked-on food particles and melt dried grease. However, it’s also important to use a dish detergent and degreasing products around the kitchen to break down tough grease and clean effectively.
“Dawn(R) has an extensive line of products that are targeted to specific needs for cleaning and sanitizing in foodservice operations,” Browe said. “When used properly in a conscientious daily program by staff members, opportunities for cross-contamination and the risks of foodborne illness are minimized.”
The final step to preventing cross-contamination on kitchen surfaces and utensils is sanitization, which is different from cleaning. Sanitizers are guaranteed to kill bacteria on surfaces; cleaners are designed to remove soils.
While the onus is on restaurant operators to prevent cross-contamination in the kitchen, restaurant patrons must also do their part to prevent the spread of foodborne illness.
“Patrons should insist on a high standard of cleanliness in the restaurants they frequent,” Browe said. “The habits of a particular operation will be the same regardless of the area viewed, so if one sees clean and shining countertops, sparkling glassware and silver in a well-maintained dining area that would help confirm that one is frequenting the business of a responsible operator who is familiar with hygienic practices.”
Furthermore, if the table doesn’t look like it’s been cleaned since the last guest, customers should not be afraid to ask that the table be cleaned and sanitized before they are seated.
And finally, leftovers are a major source of foodborne illness, since they are often left unrefrigerated for many hours at a time. The USDA recommends that all leftovers be refrigerated two hours or sooner after the meal to prevent bacteria growth.
Restaurant operators and restaurant patrons alike need to be especially aware of their food safety practices during the busy summer months when environmental conditions are optimal for the spread of foodborne illness. Special steps should be taken to avoid cross-contamination through careful food handling techniques and thorough cleaning and sanitization.