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

Restaurant Food Safety Tips: Be Your Own Health Inspector

Health inspections are a regular part of life in any food service business, but too often it’s easy for a restaurant or commercial kitchen to fall into the trap of just passing the inspection rather than regularly practicing good food safety procedures. This series is intended to help your business improve food safety practices, because it’s about more than passing an inspection.  It’s about protecting yourself, your employees, and your customer.

The FDA estimates that 81,000 people suffer from a food borne illness every year, and that 9,000 deaths are a direct result of a preventable food borne illness.  Food borne illnesses are still the leading cause of emergency room visits in the United States. With those sobering statistics in mind, here are some tips to help you make safe food handling an integral part of your day-to-day routine:

Be Your Own Health Inspector

If you make food safety a priority in your restaurant or commercial kitchen, then the day the health inspector does show up shouldn’t be anything to worry about. If anything, a health inspector can be a great resource for helping you improve your food safety practices and you should take advantage of his or her expertise to make your operation better. However, in the meantime before your next inspection, it’s a good idea to conduct your own examination of food safety practices and identify trouble areas that need improvement.

Some tips on being your own health inspector:

  • Arrive unannounced. Surprise your employees and enter your business from the outside, giving you a more accurate perspective of what the real health inspector sees when they come for an inspection.
  • Use a copy of the local health inspection form. This will help you understand exactly what the health inspector is looking for and familiarize you with the process so that you know what the inspector is looking for.
  • Conduct a thorough walk through. Take out the white glove and be as objective as possible in identifying problems with food safety procedures.  Ensure that guidelines for food storage, labeling, handwashing, and food preparation are being followed.
  • Take the time to speak to employees. Make these mock walkthroughs a training exercise for your employees so they can stay fresh on food safety procedures.  Point out errors and take the time to teach employees about how to improve food safety.  This will only help them perform better when the real inspector arrives.
  • Identify problems and define strategies to address them. If you find potential violations, develop a strategy for addressing the problem. Don’t just lecture your staff about transgressions and consider the problem taken care of.  Re-check for violations more frequently until the problem has been addressed, and reward employees who quickly correct mistakes. Providing your employess with the proper training is also a good idea!
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Food Safety Tips: HACCP

Food Safety Tips: HACCPThe HACCP, or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, is a set of guidelines and procedures for food safety originally developed by NASA for astronaut food 30 years ago.  NASA needed a food safety program with “zero tolerance” to protect astronauts from foodborne illnesses while in space.  One can imagine the consequences of a bad sandwich in a spacesuit….

Anyway, these guidelines have been adopted by most restaurants to ensure the safety of the food product and ingredients used and prepared in their kitchens.

HACCP is unique because it focuses on analyzing problem points in the production of food and develops ways to address those hazards rather than testing final products for food borne illnesses.

As a restaurateur, you are probably already familiar with HACCP guidelines.  This information is meant to be a quick refresher course on all the aspects of an effective HACCP program.  Of course, different local health standards in different areas of the country will have their own guidelines for food service, and you should always follow those guidelines over anything said here.

The HACCP system is internationally used and recognized.  The principles of a HACCP are:

1) Conduct an analysis of food safety hazards in the preparation and production of food products in a commercial kitchen.  The three hazard categories include biological (pathogens like bacteria or viruses), chemical (toxins or poisonous agents), and physical (foreign objects).

2) Identify critical control points for managing these three types of risks.  The most common control points in the commercial kitchen include heating, cooling, preparing, and serving food product.  Use NSF certified restaurant equipment and restaurant supplies to make sure the tools in your kitchen are designed with food safety in mind.

Also keep in mind the HACCP system is designed to cover all the steps in the process for food, from harvesting to consumption, so even though your restaurant may not become involved until the end of that process, you should still attempt to indentify problem points that occur before product ever comes through your door.  Make sure you know your food suppliers and their food safety procedures.

3) Establish critical limits for food passing through a critical control point.  For instance, cooked food must reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit, etc.

4) Develop a system that monitors critical limits and ensures they are Food Safety Tips: HACCPbeing met.  Thermometers are key to making sure food reaches the 140 degree critical limit.  Data loggers can monitor temperature fluctuations over time in walk-in refrigerators or freezers.  No matter what, the critical limits need to be logged and quantified in order for you to understand if the critical points you addressed in the hazard analysis phase are being met.

5) Have procedures to address problems when critical limits are not met.  The whole point of establishing a critical limit at critical points in the food preparation process is to spot potential problems immediately.  Once that system functions properly and actually finds a problem, you need to have procedures to address them.

6) Establish an effective documentation system for any HACCP program that records problems and data like time and temperature.  Without such documentation, you have no way of identifying problems in your food safety program and documenting for health inspectors the good practices of your HACCP program.

Modern food safety equipment like data loggers can be connected directly into a computer and temperatures automatically loaded into a database.  Taking advantage of such technology not only saves you time but makes your safety program more effective.

Controlling the critical food safety points in your restaurant is key to anybody’s success in the food service industry.  Having an effective HACCP program is good business practice, and will keep your customers safe and the health inspector happy.

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HACCP Principle 4 – Establish Monitoring Procedures

HACCP Principle 4 – Establish Monitoring ProceduresNow that you’ve established your Critical Control Points and Critical Limits for every preparation process and every menu item in your restaurant, it’s time to monitor.  Limits and CCPs don’t do any good if there’s no enforcement.  The first thing to establish is someone who will accept responsibility for monitoring.  If no one must answer directly for monitoring, then no one will actively enforce the managerial control points you have taken so much time to identify up to this point.

Of course you may want to have different people monitoring different CCPs.  Regardless of who takes responsibility, proper training is an absolute must.  Training ensures that monitoring processes are carried out accurately and effectively.  Every CCP monitor should understand the following:

  • What the Critical Limit is for each CCP under their control
  • How to measure that Critical Limit (for example: how to properly take the temperature of a cooking chicken breast)
  • Where to find and how to calibrate measurement equipment like thermometers
  • How often to monitor

The CCP, Critical Limit, and the procedures on when, how, and where to monitor should all be written down in clear procedures that the person in charge of monitoring has read and signed.  This helps prevent confusion and assigns official responsibility, which is particularly useful in case of problems down the road.

An example set of guidelines for a specific menu item might proceed as follows:

Menu Item: Chicken Parmesan
Assigned to Process 2 (this restaurant cooks once then immediately serves this menu item)

Identified Prerequisite Program Controls:

Identified CCPs:

  • Cooking temperature
  • Hot holding temperature or using time

The Critical Limits Are:

  • 165 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds for cooking the chicken breast
  • Serve immediately

Note that this particular restaurant serves their Chicken Parmesan immediately, thus using time as a way to control the return of bacterial HACCP Principle 4 – Establish Monitoring Proceduresgrowth.  If the restaurant did not plan on serving the chicken immediately, then a hot holding Critical Limit of 135 degrees Fahrenheit would need to be in place.

So someone in your restaurant needs to be trained and accept responsibility for monitoring the chicken breast while it cooks and ensure that it is regularly hitting 165 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds.  It is up to you to establish the guidelines for the frequency of the monitoring.  The restaurant in this example tests one chicken breast in the beginning of the dinner shift, one in the middle, and one at the end of the rush to ensure temperature Critical Limits are being met.  Consult with your local Board of Health while you are developing your own guidelines.

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Restaurant Food Safety Tips: Shop For Suppliers

Food Safety is More Than Passing a Health Inspection

Health inspections are a regular part of life in any food service business, but too often it’s easy for a restaurant or commercial kitchen to fall into the trap of just passing the inspection rather than regularly practicing good food safety procedures.

This series is intended to help your business improve food safety practices, because it’s about more than passing an inspection.  It’s about protecting yourself, your employees, and your customer.

The FDA estimates that 81,000 people suffer from a food borne illness every year, and that 9,000 deaths are a direct result of a preventable food borne illness.  Food borne illnesses are still the leading cause of emergency room visits in the United States.

With those sobering statistics in mind, here are some tips to help you make safe food handling an integral part of your day-to-day routine:

Tip #1: Know Your Food Suppliers

Finding quality food suppliers is the first step in developing a quality food safety program.  Food should arrive at your restaurant or commercial kitchen fresh and at the proper temperature.  Some tips to find the right supplier:

Start by developing quality control guidelines. Set clear standards for what food should look like when it arrives.  This makes it easier for anyone checking in new food supplies to inspect and evaluate the quality of arriving product.

When searching for new food suppliers, know exactly what you want in a product before ordering  so that you can ensure your new supplier is meeting the proper standard in quality.

Inspect food shipments. Carefully inspect and grade the quality of new food shipments.  Use a good thermometer to check the temperature of the product as it’s being unloaded, especially if you are using a new supplier.  Track the quality of shipments and flag suppliers that are bringing you degraded product.

If you have developed standard guidelines, train other managers or trusted employees to inspect shipments as well.

The search for suppliers should be ongoing. Suppliers vary in price and quality, and it’s important that you constantly evaluate these two factors with your current suppliers.

Always make sure your suppliers are certified for the food service industry.  If they aren’t performing, don’t be afraid to find another source for food products.

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HACCP Principle 7 – Keep Good Records

HACCP Principle 7 – Keep Good RecordsOf course, all the work you’ve put into the first 6 principles of HACCP won’t do you any good at all if you don’t have accurate records.  In the event that your business is implicated in a food borne illness outbreak, all of your HACCP efforts only help protect you if you have clear, accurate records of your food preparation process, and you are able to prove active managerial control.

You should maintain records of at least these 5 areas to help you manage your HACCP program:

  1. Prerequisite Program records like handwashing, equipment sanitization, etc.
  2. Monitoring records– temperature logs should record the monitoring process at each CCP in your program.
  3. Corrective action records– when corrective action needs to be taken because a Critical Limit is not met, this action should be carefully documented, not only so that the process can be adjusted to avoid future corrective actions, but so that you can protect your business from liability should an outbreak coincide with the action.
  4. Verify and validate record keeping.  Many people in your restaurant will be keeping records.  As we discussed previously, regular verification and quality control needs to take place to make sure temperatures are taken and recorded accurately.
  5. Record equipment calibration.  Thermometers and other equipment you use to measure Critical Limits needs to be calibrated on a set schedule.  Make sure this schedule and a record of the calibration is carefully maintained.

When you first start keeping records, the frequency you record critical information should be high.  This allows you to spot problems in your new HACCP program quickly.  As you master the processes laid out in the first 6 Principles of your program, record keeping can be modified to promote efficiency.

Remember that these are just guidelines!  Every restaurant is different and has unique situations and requirements when it comes to planning and managing an effective HACCP program.  Consult with your local Board of Health to make sure that the unique situations you encounter in your HACCP program still meet food safety guidelines and are helping you accomplish your ultimate goal: successfully controlling food borne illnesses in your establishment.

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Two Products That Will Really Help Your Food Safety Efforts

I want to talk about some products that can really help your food safety efforts:

1.  Stainless steel 1/6 pans for your prep table coolers. Stainless is a much better conductor  than plastic, so Two Products That Will Really Help Your Food Safety Effortskeep your foods in them and it will help you avoid critical cold holding violations from the health department.  Additionally, do the following:

  • Ensure that foods are 41 F or below BEFORE placing them in cold holding units.  These types of coolers are designed to hold cold foods, not to cool them.
  • Do not overfill inserts.  Mounding foods is a near guarantee that the top portion rises in temperature.
  • Keep the pivot lid closed during slow periods.  I regularly see open lids during afternoon slow periods, and foods are warming up unnecessarily.

2.  Additional epoxy wire shelving for your walk-in coolers. I often observe shelves in walk-ins with considerable unused vertical space between the shelves.  In a walk-in, this is wasted space that you can easily reclaim for the one time expense of adding shelving.  And if you’re going to buy new shelving, make sure it’s epoxy coated.  This prevents rust from forming and keeps your shelves clean.

Two Products That Will Really Help Your Food Safety EffortsThink about these examples:

  • If you normally cool foods in several 2” pans, then install shelves close enough for the pans to slide in side by side.Two Products That Will Really Help Your Food Safety Efforts
  • If you store vegetables in 6” food storage boxes, then install your shelves close enough for them to slide them in side by side:  Two Products That Will Really Help Your Food Safety Efforts

I hope you are visualizing your walk-in cooler and considering how you can maximize your space.  Installing extra shelving eliminates the tendency to stack containers and will ensure airflow around each container.

Just so you know, this is not just a theory to me … I have customers who have successfully done this, solving longstanding cooling and cold holding problems in their walk-in coolers.

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Food Safety Tips: Prerequisite Programs

Food Safety Tips: Prerequisite ProgramsThose of you familiar with the HACCP approach to food safety know that HACCP is just one part of the food safety puzzle in your restaurant.  It’s very good at managing cooking and holding temperatures for food product, which should be considered the first line of defense against pathogens that could sicken customers.

But HACCP also relies heavily on what it calls “prerequisite programs,” or standard operating procedures (SOPs) that keep your restaurant’s kitchen a clean, microbe-free environment at all times.  Without prerequisite programs, HACCP becomes your only defense against food borne illness, and that means unacceptable risk for your business.

Think of these SOPs as the base and HACCP as the tip of a spear in the battle against bacteria.  Most of these procedures are obvious precautions which you probably already have in place in your restaurant, but having a checklist can be helpful in making sure you’re taking a comprehensive approach:

Staff handwashing.  A handwashing sink with posted guidelines on when to wash hands and how to wash hands properly is a fundamental SOP for any restaurant.  Also make sure you train your staff on handwashing procedure and carry out regular enforcement to make sure your staff are handling food product with clean hands.  Learn more here.

Cover up.  Hair and beard restraints, disposable gloves, and proper chef apparel prevent foreign objects from ending up in food.  A properly clothed staff is key to keeping unwanted things out of the entrees you serve your customers.

Sanitization procedures.  Everything that touches food in your restaurant needs to be sanitized on a regular basis.  Food processors, mixers, slicers, countertops, utensils, and cookware are all good examples.  Smaller items like kitchen knives and fry pans can be sanitized using your commercial dishwasher.  Larger equipment like mixers and slicers need to be washed down with a sanitizer solution.  The same goes for surfaces where food is prepared.  Buying concentrated sanitizer for this task will save you a lot of money over pre-mixed sanitizer.

Receiving product.  When your supplier truck rolls up to the back door of your restaurant, you and your staff should be following a standard set of procedures for processing and storing product.  The temperature of cold stored product should be checked as it comes off the truck and a minimum time for getting it into your walk-in should be set.  These guidelines make sure product is arriving at a safe temperature and is stored properly without entering the danger zone over 41 degrees Fahrenheit.

Employee health.  Employees that come in direct contact with food during its preparation should be sent home if they exhibit symptoms of illnesses that can be transmitted to customers, including vomiting and diarrhea.  The loss of that employee for that shift is minor compared to the problems your business will face if a customer is infected.

Use potable water.  The vast majority of kitchens have ready access to potable water through existing plumbing.  However, it’s important to have procedures and staff training in place that ensures water used for cooking, washing, or otherwise preparing food product and for ice making is free from pathogens and contamination.  Usually this means preventing the cross-contamination of water after it comes out of the tap.  In the case of ice making, ice machine lines and ice bins should be cleaned on a regular basis to prevent bacterial growth.

Control contaminants and toxic compounds.  Some of the things you use in your restaurant kitchen cannot come into contact with food, like sanitizers, equipment lubricants, pesticides, etc.  Make sure these contaminants are properly labeled and stored in a separate, dedicated place and that machines and surfaces that come into contact with food product are properly washed.

Control pests.  The reasons for controlling pests are obvious.  However, it’s easy to forget about a control program and tempting to save a little money by not calling the exterminator.  Make sure you regularly locate and eliminate pests with an effective program on a regular schedule.

Calibrate hot and cold holding equipment and temperature measuring devices.  Over time the temperature this equipment says it’s at becomes less and less accurate, potentially allowing food to slip into the danger zone between 41 and 135 degrees Fahrenheit.  Calibrate this equipment on a regular schedule to ensure temperature accuracy.

Depending on what your kitchen prepares and how it’s configured, additional safety procedures may be warranted.  Consult with your local health inspection official for advice on how to address unique situations you might encounter in your restaurant.

Enforcement is also an important concern.  The best laid guidelines in the world are useless if they aren’t followed properly.  HACCP procedures for monitoring employees create a great, multi-layered system for ensuring guidelines are followed.

Food safety is a constant work-in-progress.  Training employees and then effectively monitoring the implementation of prerequisite programs will create a solid base upon which your food safety program can rest, ensuring you are serving the best food to your customer day in and day out.

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10 Back Burner Food Safety Tips

10 Back Burner Food Safety TipsOne of the most important responsibilities of any restaurateur is the proper implementation of a food safety program.  A lapse in food safety can spell the doom of your restaurant, and if you’re just opening a new restaurant, it can mean a delayed opening night.

Good food safety isn’t something you achieve once and then forget about.  It’s something you practice every day your restaurant is open, from the moment product leaves the truck at the back door all the way through to the time the busboy clears the plates after your guests have finished their meals.

Below are 10 food safety tips from The Back Burner that will help you brush up your program.  You have probably already implemented many of these strategies to one degree or another.  Think of this a refresher course and the chance to learn something you didn’t know.  And if you have food safety topics not covered here that really should be, let us know!

1. Shop For Suppliers – As all of the food recent food recalls have taught us, food safety doesn’t start when product comes off the truck at your restaurant.  The supply chain is much longer than that, and things can go wrong well before you ever lay eyes on a box of tomatoes or a head of lettuce.  Learn how to diversify your supply chain and hold it accountable.

2. Managing Temperature - One of the most important aspects of food safety is monitoring food temperatures and making sure it’s always out of the danger zone.  Learn some effective strategies for managing temperature.

3. Proper Handwashing – All your food safety management strategies can go down the drain in a flash if one employee doesn’t wash their hands properly and then handles food.  Learn how to train and supervise employees effectively here.

4. Be Your Own Health Inspector – Why wait for the health inspector to tell you what needs to  be fixed with your food safety program?  Be proactive and think like an inspector before they come to your restaurant.  That way, your inspections will be a breeze.

5. In The Field At Turley’s – This venerable Boulder restaurant shares some of their food safety strategies for the benefit of all.  There’s nothing like some real world experience to put things in perspective.10 Back Burner Food Safety Tips

6. Understanding NSF and UL – Everybody’s seen the NSF and UL labels on products in their restaurant’s kitchen.  What do those labels really mean?  Learn more in this article.

7. HACCP - If you don’t know what this stands for, then you definitely need to read this article.  Even if you do, you might learn a couple things about this core food safety program.

8. Data Loggers – If you don’t use this vital piece of food safety equipment, you might consider it after reading this article.

9. Vacuum Breakers And Backflow Valves – Clean water is vital to any food safety program, and increasingly health inspectors are looking at restaurant plumbing to make sure you are safeguarding the water supply.  Some simple plumbing parts you can install yourself will make the inspector happy and keep your water safe.10 Back Burner Food Safety Tips

10. Safe Seafood – Seafood handling can be especially tricky in a restaurant.  Learn how to keep your seafood tasting great and your customers safe.

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Food Safety: Controlling Insects And Pests

Food Safety: Controlling Insects And PestsThe primary focus of any food safety program, and rightly so, is on the temperature of your food product.  Heating food to the proper temperature and storing it at the proper cold temperature are vital to preventing contamination.  But allowing foreign objects like hair, metal, and insects or pests to contaminate food can be just as much of a food safety headache for your restaurant and making somebody sick.

Pest mitigation should be a regular part of your food safety program – just like checking to make sure chicken breast is cooking at 165 degrees.  Fighting pests takes two forms: preventative measures and reactive measures.  The goal is to have enough preventative measures in place to minimize or eliminate ever taking reactive measures.

Preventative measures include:

Keep it clean. Pests want to be in your restaurant for two reasons: shelter and food.  And while your kitchen will always be a warm and inviting place, you can do a lot to make sure it’s not particularly filling.  The standard place to start in your effort to make your kitchen a hungry place for pests is with the trash.  Take it out every day, wash out containers regularly, and use a plastic liner.

You’ve already got those bases covered.  More important to preventing pest infestation is to make sure everything makes it into the trash that should before you take it out.  That means food bits and debris from every corner of the kitchen.  It can be easy to miss the many corners and hidden crevices where pest dinner tends to collect, so make sure there is a regular top-to-bottom cleaning schedule with hefty enforcement.  This goes for the front of the house as well.

Run a tight ship.
The best way to keep pests from making your restaurant their new home is to make it very hard for them to break in.  Use caulking, screens, and other patching materials to stop up holes wherever they occur.  The most common areas where holes occur are around doors, ventilation systems, pipes, and plumbing installations.

Food Safety: Controlling Insects And PestsAlso make sure particularly sweet or strong-smelling ingredients are stored in airtight ingredient bins to prevent pests from using them for meals and breeding grounds.

Set the trap. After you’ve made your restaurant as inhospitable as possible by storing foods properly, sealing entryways, and cleaning regularly, it’s time to set some traps to catch any brave pests that still insist on making your restaurant their home.

For mice and rats, standard snap traps will work well enough.  If you start catching mice and rats, it’s time to investigate further and find out where they’re nesting and how they’re getting into the building.

For insects, an insect control system that uses UV light to attract and trap anything with wings is very effective.  The Paraclipse system is an easy-to-maintain way to keep flies and other bugs out of your food and in the trash instead.Food Safety: Controlling Insects And Pests

In the case of cockroaches, don’t try to solve your problems with cheap residential-strength traps.  Call an exterminator right away.  Cockroaches are one of the hardiest creatures on earth, and it is going to take several rounds by a professional to eliminate the problem.  This will surely be expensive, but all it takes is one cockroach sighting to turn a customer away from your establishment for life.

If you’re vigilant about these preventative measures, then hopefully you’ll never get to the reactive measures stage, which usually involves you, your checkbook, and a licensed exterminator.  If you do discover an infestation problem, then address it right away with the help of a professional.  The risk to your business is much larger than the expense of extermination.

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Food Safety Tips: Understanding NSF and UL

You’ve probably seen the NSF and UL labels in your restaurant or commercial kitchen before.  And you probably already have an idea what these organizations do and what that label means.  But fully understanding what the NSF and UL do to make sure restaurant equipment and tools meet food and personal safety standards is worth your time, so here’s a brief explanation:

Food Safety Tips: Understanding NSF and UL

NSF International (formerly known as the National Sanitation Foundation) is an independent, non-profit organization that certifies food service equipment and ensures it is designed and constructed in a way that promotes food safety. NSF is internationally recognized and most food service equipment is NSF certified.

What does that certification mean?  Equipment certified by the NSF must complete the following process:

  • The facility where the product is made is thoroughly audited by an NSF representative.  This ensures the product is constructed in a sanitary manner and that the standards for sanitary design elements are actually met during construction and assembly.
  •  A physical evaluation of the product is carried out to ensure it meets food safety standards.
  • Testing and evaluation is done on the materials used to make the product to make sure they meet standards.
  • The facility and product must also undergo annual follow up audits to maintain certification.

NSF certified products have therefore passed a stringent set of evaluations to ensure food safety requirements and standards are met. Some common food service equipment that is certified by the NSF include: commercial dishwashers, cooking, hot holding, and transport equipment, dispensing freezers, commercial refrigerators and storage freezers, automatic ice making equipment, and food and beverage dispensing equipment.  Many restaurant and commercial kitchen utensils and cutlery also get NSF certification.

As a restaurateur, purchasing NSF certified equipment and small wares ensures that your business is promoting food safety.  The power of NSF’s reputation means that most equipment you buy is already certified, but understanding what that certification means is important when you look to buy new equipment or during your next health inspection.

Food Safety Tips: Understanding NSF and UL

Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL)

Millions of products, from consumer electronics to commercial cooking equipment in your restaurant, carry the UL symbol.  UL certification means the product and its components meet a set of safety and hazard standards that ensure the safety of the product’s users.

Over the last 100 years, UL has become the primary authority on product safety.  The UL label on the equipment in your kitchen means it has met a set of standards that ensure your equipment operates in a safe manner.  This includes electrical, design, and structural elements of restaurant equipment.

UL conducts ongoing analysis of products to make sure they continue to meet safety standards.  And UL also has a sanitation certification for equipment that is important to food safety.  Look for this label when dealing with such equipment:

Food Safety Tips: Understanding NSF and UL

As a restaurateur, it’s important to understand the stringent process certified products must go through to bear the NSF and UL labels.  These products have gone the extra mile to ensure the food and personal safety of their equipment.  Purchasing NSF and UL approved products shows you the manufacturer has taken the time to create a quality product, and that can lend you a little peace of mind.

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