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Get great tips on how to maximize food safety in your commercial kitchen or restaurant.

Your Food Safety Questions Answered!

Food SafetyA good friend of ours and contributor to The Back Burner, Jim Austin, has kindly offered to answer your questions about food safety.  Jim is a former local health department director in Colorado and currently runs a restaurant consulting firm.

So, what food safety questions do you have? Post them in the comments section below and Jim will address them in upcoming blog posts.

Visit Jim’s website at

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New Super Fast Pathogen Tester Could Change Food Safety

Food SafetyIt seems like every year there are a growing number of food product recalls in response to outbreaks of illness caused by nasty bacteria like E. coli and salmonella.  In 2010 we had outbreaks in lettuce, tomatoes, and alfalfa sprouts that sickened hundreds of people.  In fact, there are 48 million reported cases of food borne illness every year and an estimated 3,000 deaths.

Restaurants often fall victim to blame for contamination that happened earlier in the food supply chain, but that doesn’t excuse them from responsibility.  Instead, food service businesses have to be more vigilant than ever when preparing food for customers.  You simply can’t trust that the ingredients coming in your back door are completely safe.

That’s why it was such encouraging news to hear that a Denver based biotech company called Beacon Food Safety has developed a comprehensive, super fast testing device that can detect up to 112 different kinds of food borne pathogens within a couple hours, and often within just a few minutes.

Visit for more information

Visit for more information

The tester resembles a standard thumb drive, but instead of a couple gigabytes of disk space, this USB device has a chip inside it with 112 individual detectors filled with a protein that was synthetically recreated from a deep sea creature.  When this protein comes into contact with a pathogen, it emits a light that can be detected by a computer when the tester is plugged into the USB  port.

Whoa, that’s high tech.

The device is revolutionary because pathogen testing has traditionally taken days or weeks to complete.  That’s because a sample has to be taken and allowed to steep in a petri dish.  The problem has always been that as few as 10 E. coli cells can make a person gravely ill, and it takes a long time for 10 cells to multiply in large enough numbers in a petri dish to be detected.

The Beacon device can’t detect as few as 10 cells just yet, but it can detect pathogens in very small numbers very quickly compared to traditional testing methods.

This kind of technology stands to revolutionize how pathogens are tracked in the food supply chain.  The ability to catch contaminated food almost in real time will mean outbreaks can be controlled and sources of illness can be found much more quickly.

For restaurateurs, the Beacon tester can add an extra layer of security to any food safety program.  Did some product arrive not quite at temperature?  Test it.  Has something been sitting in the walk-in a little too long?  Test it.  Are proteins getting cooked thoroughly enough?  Test it!

Beacon plans to make its device available for $20 a pop – a little steep for testing everything every day, but certainly in the realm for random spot checking to help ensure your restaurant’s food safety program is definitely working.

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Vital Food Safety Equipment: Data Loggers

As the past year’s worth of food contamination scares have shown, managing food safety must be a top priority for the food service industry. In fact, it can mean the survival or failure of your business, since a foodborne illness case linked to your restaurant or commercial kitchen could put you out of business with sickening speed. The good news is there are many ways to apply technology to the timeless problem of managing temperature, and data loggers from companies like Comark are a major part of the 21st century approach to managing food safety.

Use data loggers to keep track of food temperature over time.

Use data loggers to keep track of food temperature over time.

A data logger is a small (they usually fit in the palm of your hand) digital device capable of taking regular air temperature and humidity readings in a walk-in refrigerator or freezer.  This allows you to accurately record average food temperatures on a consistent basis and keep a log of temperature patterns over time.

Many data loggers even have an optional probe that can be inserted into cooling product to make sure it is getting out of the temperature danger zone quickly.  Multiple probes can be linked to a single logger through a link box system, allowing you to track temperatures in several types of product simultaneously.

Data loggers have incredible memory capabilities, with many able to record tens of thousands of temperature readings.  Even more useful to managers is accompanying software and a USB cable that enables data to be transferred from the logger to a PC, where it can be stored and analyzed.

Why are data loggers so important?

Besides the obvious ability to constantly monitor temperature in your commercial kitchen, a good data logging system will help you during your next health inspection.

Having cool time data for stored product and average walk-in temperatures at your fingertips means you can quantify for the inspector exactly how your food safety program is keeping product out of the temperature danger zone.

You’ll also be able to identify and head off problems before they become issues with the inspector.  If product isn’t cooling down fast enough or your walk-in isn’t staying cold enough, a data logger can tell very quickly.

Tracking temperature changes can also save you money.  If the data shows your walk-in’s temperature rises at the same time every day, it’s that much easier to identify the cause of the problem.

Maybe an employee leaves the door open to pull product every morning.  Perhaps the door gasket needs to be replaced.  Knowing temperature trends means you can devise ways to improve energy efficiency and save on the bills in the process.

It’s said “knowledge is power,” and having a data logger working for your restaurant or commercial kitchen is definitely a powerful way to manage food temperature.  And as recent events have shown, you can’t afford to ignore this very important issue.

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Are Serving Utensils Going To Get You In Trouble With The Health Inspector?

You have 4 options for storing “in-use” dispensing utensils…the requirement is in Section 3-306 of the Colorado Retail Food Establishment Rules and Regulations:

  1. Stored in the food with the dispensing utensil handle extended out of the food
  2. Stored clean and dry
  3. Stored in potable running water as in a running water dipper well
  4. Stored at temperatures of 135 F and above, or 41 F and below
Utensil Food Safety

This photo depicts a proper practice, using option #1. This what your inspector likes to see.

Health inspectors see some disgusting practices, such as:

  • Chefs knives stored with their blades in cracks between equipment.  These cracks are often lined with grease and old food residue.
  • Knives stored on wall-mounted magnetic strips, but the blades are soiled or the knife rack itself is encrusted with grease, crumbs and residue.
  • Dispensing utensils stored in a bucket of standing room temperature water, with lots of floating food debris.

Think about that from your customers perspective…would you want your food prepared with those utensils?  Neither would I!

Besides storing in-use utensils properly, be sure the blades and handles are in good condition.   I was with a customer recently and noticed a grill spatula with a sizable sliver of metal missing from the spatula blade. I can only hope it ended up on the floor or in the trash, and not in food!

Examine the food contact surfaces of your utensils and see if any of the following are present:

  1. Chipped or ragged edges of metal spatulas.
  2. Cracks or breaks in plastic ice scoops.
  3. Splinters or chips on wooden knife handles.
  4. Wooden cutting boards with deep grooves and potential loose wood debris.
  5. Fraying edges of plastic spatulas.

Those surfaces are not “easily cleanable” and they pose a real potential for material to end up in the food. How do you spell LAWSUIT?  Make it part of your management walk-thru to watch for these problems and train your staff to do the same.

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HACCP Principle 3: Set Critical Limits

Set Critical Limits For Your Food Preparation ProcessEvery CCP you identified by grouping menu items into processes now must have a critical limit set for it in order to become an official part of your HACCP program.  The FDA’s Food Code and your local Board of Health have established time and temperature specifications for every type of food you serve in your restaurant.  Research the time and temperature requirements at each CCP for each food type in every menu item you serve in your restaurant.

The most important critical limits usually involve keeping food out of the danger zone as much as possible.  The “danger zone” is generally 42 degrees Fahrenheit to 135 degrees Fahrenheit, although this upper limit will vary depending on what you’re cooking.  The space between 42 and 135 is called the danger zone because that temperature range is ideal for bacterial and pathogen growth.  The less time food spends in the danger zone, the less likely it is to develop contamination.

It’s also important to remember that time plays an important part when setting critical temperature limits.  For example, the critical cooking temperature for a chicken breast in a Process 2 or 3 (see Principle 2) menu item is 165 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds.  For Process 3 menu items, where food is cooled after being cooked, it is not enough to set a critical limit for cooling at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.  The food must reach 41 degrees within 6 hours, and must reach 71 degrees by the end of the first 2 hours.  Consult with your local Board of Health or the FDA’s Food Code for more information.

Time can also take the place of a temperature control, and in some cases it might make sense to do so.  For instance, if you cook food using Process 2 and set your critical limit for temperature to be reached during cooking and then serve the food right away, you do not need to set a critical limit for hot holding.  The same principle applies to some cold holding critical limits.  Consult with your local Board of Health to determine exact time specifications.

So now you have identified hazards, grouped your menu items into Processes, and set critical limits for each CCP in each Process.  You have gone a long way towards implementing an effective HACCP program.  Unfortunately, the first three principles were the easy part (relatively anyway!).  Now you have to monitor, establish corrective action procedures, verify monitoring and verification procedures, and establish a record keeping system.  These last 4 steps are designed to make sure the lofty standards you set in steps 1 – 3 are actually achieved.  It’s one thing to talk the HACCP talk.  Now you have to ensure your restaurant is walking the walk.

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HACCP Principle 2 – The Difference Between CCP & SOP

This post is a continuation of last week’s HACCP post and the second in a series of posts here on The Back Burner that will completely outline a proper HACCP program for your restaurant.

HACCP Critical Control PointsA Critical Control Point (CCP) is a specific place where food can become contaminated.  After conducting the Hazard Analysis in Step 1, and identifying the what, where, when, why, and how, you should have a good idea of what your CCPs should be.  However, not all potential contamination points should be labeled a Critical Control Point.  Critical control points are exactly that: absolutely essential to ensuring food safety in your restaurant.

Other points of potential contamination should absolutely be addressed without using the HACCP system.  This is a key distinction when using HACCP: this program is designed for the control of critical contamination points in the food preparation and storage process, and should be used in conjunction with a robust food safety program, not in place of a food safety program.

Unless you are brand new to the food service industry, you have probably already created a list of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for applying proper food safety in your restaurant.  New operators should work with their local Board of Health to develop their SOPs before opening the doors.  These SOPs are called Prerequisite Programs in HACCP.  This distinction is important because as you identify risks and hazards in your restaurant, you are going to find points that should be addressed, but are not absolutely essential to achieving food safety for food safety.

These less critical points should be addressed with a Prerequisite Program, with definitive steps for minimizing risks and hazards.  The critical points in food preparation and storage that have to be done right every time to prevent contamination should be labeled a CCP and folded into your HACCP program.

So how do you decide which points are a CCP and which can be handled by a Prerequisite Program?  A good strategy is to analyze the food preparation process for each item on your menu.  There are a few exceptions, but in general most menu items can be divided into three groups (please keep in mind that the CCPs listed below are the most common examples only; actual CCPs may vary depending on the situation):

Process 1 – No Cook
Process 2 – Cook & Serve
Process 3 – Complex Prep

More on these processes in the next post.

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Taste & Food Safety: 2 Reasons To Clean Your Beer Taps!

Beer Tap CleaningIf your restaurant or bar has beer on tap, you already know how much customers appreciate a good pour.  Beer on tap tends to taste better, and from a business perspective, buying kegs gives you a better margin than buying it in bottles or cans.  For most restaurateurs, beer taps are a win-win.

But one thing that’s easy to forget are the food safety issues associated with your tap system.  Over time, yeast, mold, and bacteria build up in the tap lines running from the keg to the tap.  Fruit flies and other bugs, attracted to the residue beer leaves behind, can also climb up into taps and pollute the line.

All this means beer doesn’t taste as good as it should.  It also means you can inadvertently sicken your customers.  Those lines need to be cleaned at least once a week, perhaps more often if you serve a lot of it.  Fortunately, cleaning beer lines is an easy process that anyone on your staff can accomplish with about 10 minutes of training.

To start, turn off your CO2 supply at the regulator on the tank.  This is a very important step because you absolutely must make sure the lines are depressurized! Next, disconnect the CO2 line from the coupler on the keg itself, then disconnect the tap line.  The CO2 line usually comes into the side of the coupler at a 90 degree angle and the tap line comes out the top of the coupler and goes up through the bar to the taps.

Disconnect the coupler from the keg and soak it in warm water along with a detergent designed for tap cleaning.  This is important because regular detergent isn’t as effective at breaking down the yeast and sugar buildup particular to beer.
To clean the tap line itself, you’ll need to collect a few tools first:

•    A 5 gallon bucket (preferably color coded red because you are using sanitizer)
•    A keg beer cleaning kit (usually includes a plastic bottle with a hand pump, length of hose, and a coupler)
•    A tap wrench

Fill the plastic bottle with tap line detergent and warm water.  Mix well.  Use the tap wrench to remove the tap faucet and soak this in the same bucket with your keg coupler.  Next, connect the coupler on the end of the hose attached to the bottle to the tap where you unscrewed the tap faucet.  Go back underneath the bar and make sure the other end of the tap line (where it connects to the keg coupler) is set up to drain into your red 5 gallon bucket.

Pump the solution from the bottle through the tap line and let it fully drain into the bucket.  It’s usually good to let it sit for five minutes or so to let that detergent work on any buildup in the line.  Rinse out your pump bottle and refill it with cold fresh water.  Reconnect it and pump that water through the line.

While you’re waiting for that to drain, take a pipe cleaning brush and clean out the coupler and tap faucet.  This is also a good time to check the rubber gaskets on both and replace old or worn ones.  Reconnect the system and you’re ready to start serving fresh, delicious beer again!
Tap Faucet Plug
Finally, get a tap faucet plug for your taps to prevent bugs from crawling into the tap lines when they aren’t in use.  This plug doubles as a pipe brush when you clean your tap system.

15 minutes a week should be plenty for you to make one of your best selling items (with a good margin!) always tasting great and safe for your customers.

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A Review of My Favorite Pocket Thermometer

Comark Pocket ThermometerAbove is an image of my favorite thermometer for everyday food service use, the COMARK PDT-300.

Here is why:

  1. It is NSF approved and meets the Colorado requirement for a thin probe thermometer to measure the temperatures of thin foods such as patties, fillets, etc.
  2. It reads quickly, in just a few seconds.
  3. It is reliable and durable, withstanding drops and continual use.
  4. The battery just keeps going…mine typically lasts about a year, and you can imagine how often I use my thermometer.
  5. Performing an ice water calibration is simple and takes less than one minute.
  6. The price is unbeatable…less than $20 at Tundra Specialties.

One question that frequently arises is where to place the thermometer when taking the temperature of food.  That is best answered by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in Annex 5 of the 2009 FDA Model Food Code:

The geometric center or thickest part of a product are the points of measurement of product temperature particularly when measuring critical limits for cooking.
The geometric center of a product is usually the point of measurement of product temperature particularly when measuring the critical limit for cold holding.

As a former health department food safety manager, I’ve used many types over the years, and in my opinion, it’s the best for the money for everyday food service use.  I regularly demonstrate it to my customers, and they invariably ask me where to buy one – the answer is easy; I tell them Tundra Specialties.

My name is Jim Austin and since 2001 I’ve been a food safety consultant in private practice, based in Denver, Colorado. I am a former Colorado local health department manager who was responsible for the food inspection program. I know how the world of government regulation really works, and I enjoy helping my customers deal confidently with the health department and protect their business interests.

For a free initial consultation, please contact me:

Colorado Restaurant Consulting


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Contaminated Ice: Key Tips To Keep Your Customers Safe

Getting ice from the ice machine bin to your customer’s drink glass without contaminating it is a food safety consideration that is easy to overlook.  That doesn’t mean it’s any less important than the other danger points you deal with every day while preparing and serving food in your restaurant.  In fact, proper ice handling is probably even more important because you don’t have the insurance that heating something about to be eaten by a customer brings you.

The key to keeping your ice safe for consumption is to limit the points of contact it has in its journey from bin to glass.  Having the proper tools is essential to limiting contact, and in recent years reputable companies like San Jamar have developed products that make the transportation of ice a much more sanitary exercise than just scooping and dumping in a bucket.

Ice Scoop & HolderProper ice handling starts with the scoop.  A good ice scoop should have two key components that prevent the user from unintentionally contaminating the ice: a knuckle guard and a holder.  The knuckle guard prevents hands (and the pathogens that might be living there) from coming into direct contact with the ice, either in the bin or in an ice bucket.  The scoop holder provides a sanitary place to leave the ice scoop when it’s not in use.  A good scoop holder completely encompasses the scoop so that outside contaminants can’t come into contact with the scoop.

Part of your food safety SOP’s should be to clean and sanitize the ice scoop and holder on a regular schedule, preferably once a day.  That way you ensure that the scoop remains sanitary and doesn’t communicate bugs to your customer’s ice.86210

The next place ice contamination likes to occur is the ice tote or ice bucket.  For years the ice bucket has been nothing more than a 5 gallon plastic bucket that gets filled with ice for transport to the bar, a server station, or the kitchen.  The problem with a simple bucket is that the open top and lack of a handle on the side don’t inhibit possible contamination.  Stuff can fall into a 5 gallon bucket.  And when someone is dumping ice, it’s easy to allow dirty hands to come into contact with the ice.

Newer ice totes have a lid and a side or bottom handle to limit possible contact with contaminants.  That makes it easy to transport ice without worrying about contamination, no matter who’s doing the work.

Finally, proper handwashing should be standard operating procedure for whoever is moving ice.  While newer tools for moving ice are designed to minimize contact, that doesn’t lessen the importance of clean hands for whoever is handling the ice.  Some proper training and enforcement is needed to ensure employees are handling ice with the goal of minimizing contamination.

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In The Field: Food Safety At Turley’s

Here at The Back Burner we have talked a lot about food safety.  It’s an ongoing project for any restaurateur, and also a potential matter of life and death for any food service business given the stakes if a food borne illness were to break out in your restaurant.

So instead of sitting here in my ivory tower writing blog articles about the importance of this or that food safety procedure or product, I decided to get out from behind my computer (a rare occurrence, I must say!) and venture out into the real world for a closer look at the practical application of a food safety program in a real restaurant.

Turley's Restaurant in Boulder, CO

Turley’s Restaurant in Boulder, CO

Turley’s Restaurant in Boulder, CO is a family owned business that has been a Boulder icon since 1977.  Their eclectic menu focuses on diversity and healthy eating while serving exquisite flavors and beautiful presentation.

Turley’s management also take their food safety program very seriously.  Sandy and David are second and third generation Turley family, respectively, and they took a moment recently to talk about food safety in their restaurant.

Every good food safety program has a primary line of defense at critical points in the process of turning product and ingredients into entrees ready to be eaten, and the line in the kitchen is definitely one of those points.

Turley’s two-date temperature logs allow line cooks to track product over time and make sure it’s staying out of the temperature danger zone between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which is prime bacteria breeding weather.

The restaurant equipment on the line is also checked and logged routinely by line cooks to ensure they are reaching the proper temperature, and the high-temp dishwasher is also monitored to make sure it’s sanitizing dishes at 180 degrees.  Turley’s management then spot checks product and equipment at random to make sure accurate readings are being logged by the kitchen staff.  Their preferred method for checking temperature is a quick-read digital thermometer.

“It’s an evolving process,” says David as he shows me the temperature logs he prints for his line cooks.  “It gets involved very quickly, but if you make people sick, you’re out of business.”

A recent evolution at Turley’s has been identifying problem product that has trouble staying out of the danger zone and putting it in freezer pans to make sure it chills quickly and stays below 40 degrees even if it’s pulled frequently for use on the line.

The process of collecting data, analyzing it and identifying trouble spots, then developing a solution is what makes a food safety program effective.  It’s also a cycle that must be repeated consistently to make sure your restaurant is a success.

Please stay tuned as we talk further with Turley’s management David and Sandy and get some important tips on staff training and their philosophy on a successful food safety program.

Visit Turley’s if you’re in Boulder at 2805 Pearl St., Boulder, CO 80302.

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