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10 Back Burner Food Safety Tips

Food SafetyOne 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.NSF

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.Safe Seafood

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 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.

Ingredient BinAlso 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.Insect Control System

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:

NSF Logo

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.

UL Logo

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:

UL Sanitation

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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Restaurant Food Safety Tips: Managing Temperature

Maintaining proper food temperature should be a constant process in your commercial kitchen, from the time it arrives through your back door to the time it arrives on the customer’s plate.

81332When the delivery truck arrives, immediately check food products for temperature.  Reject food that arrives above 41 degrees Fahrenheit.  Once you have ensured that the food has arrived in good condition, store it immediately.

Use a good thermometer.  Make good thermometers available to your staff to help with the temperature monitoring process.  Make sure you and your staff are trained in proper thermometer use:

Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of what you want to measure, and make sure the tip is in about the center.

Wait about five minutes for a proper reading.  Newer digital thermometers will beep when they have reached the absolute temperature.

Sanitize the thermometer before and after each use.

Constantly monitor food temperatures. Develop and post a temperature monitoring schedule for all the different food types you are currently storing and prepping.

Train other employees to help you maintain this schedule.  Stay out of the food temperature danger zone between 41 degrees and 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

For heated foods, post a safe temperature chart for cooked foods and train your employees to properly use a thermometer to check food temps during heating.

Safe Chilling and Heating Instructions

Keeping out of the 41 degrees to 145 degrees danger zone should be the top priority for all foods and ingredients.  The one exception to the danger zone rule is freshly cooked food, which can be held at 140 degrees before serving, although you should establish a deadline for hot held food after which you should either rapidly chill and store the product or dispose of it.

If you are chilling food that was heated, chilling it rapidly is the best way to prevent bacterial growth.  Use a blast chiller or a cold paddle to bring food temperature down quickly.

This also retains maximum food freshness.  After food has been rapidly cooled, store it in a commercial refrigerator or freezer.  Use storage containers to maintain freshness.

If you are serving cold foods, use a chill pan with built-in refrigerant and ice to ensure food maintains the correct temperature.  Monitor temperature to make sure food items are not rising above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Restaurant Food Safety Tips: Proper Hand Washing

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:

Wash Your Hands!

Wash Your Hands!

Cross-contamination resulting from kitchen staff touching contaminated surfaces and then touching food being prepared to serve is one of the most common causes of food borne illness.

Employees should be trained on when to wash their hands and information regarding proper hand washing technique should be posted throughout your commercial kitchen or restaurant, especially over hand sinks and in bathrooms.When To Wash Hands:

  • After touching other food
  • After eating, drinking or smoking
  • After performing other tasks like cleaning, taking out trash, etc.
  • After coming into contact with their person or bodily fluids, like sneezing, coughing, or touching hair or skin

How To Wash Hands:

  • Wet hands first and then apply plenty of soap
  • Use warm water
  • Wash hands for at least 20 seconds (it’s longer than you think!)
  • Use the palms of the hands to rub soap over other areas like the back of the hand, fingers, wrists, and forearms
  • Use fingers to vigorously rub palms and between fingers, where bacteria and pathogens tend to collect
  • Dry in a sanitary manner: clean, unused paper towels or automatic hand dryer

Developing and training a hand washing procedure for your employees is important, but it’s also useless without effective enforcement.  Make sure you have a method for monitoring and reminding staff of proper hand washing procedures.

A little prevention, especially with something as easy as washing your hands, can go a long way in maintaining high restaurant food safety standards.

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Restaurant Floor Matting: Safety First, Comfort Second

Getting quality kitchen floor matting isn’t only a staff comfort issue; it’s an important safety issue as well. Kitchen floor matting is made from a rubberized material and can be placed anywhere in your kitchen where staff stands while working, including on the line, in front of the dishwasher, behind the bar, and in front of sinks.

Floor matting is great for safety because, as anybody who has worked in a kitchen knows, floors become wet and greasy very quickly, no matter how recently you cleaned.Commercial kitchen floor matting is anti-slip even when greasy or wet.

The best thing about it is your staff will love you for putting down floor matting because it’s so much more comfortable to stand on than concrete

Black Floor Matting

Black grease-resistant floor matting

Black matting is grease resistant and is usually used for bar areas and other areas away from cooking equipment.


Red grease-proof floor matting

Red grease-proof floor matting

Red matting is grease proof, and even though it’s more expensive, is the best option for the line and around cooking equipment.

Black Cloud Anti-Fatigue Floor Mat

Black cloud anti-fatigue floor matting

Cloud matting brings an extra level of comfort to whoever gets to stand on it, and is almost a requirement for staff who stand in the same place all day while they work.  Cloud matting is also slip resistant and anti-microbial and is the best in comfort and safety.

Over time your kitchen floor matting will wear from constant use. You should replace your matting if it has begun to tear, or if it’s become very thin. No matter what, maintaining good floor matting in your kitchen and bar is very important for staff safety and comfort, so make sure you keep good matting down at all times in your restaurant.

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The Skinny On The FDA’s 2009 Food Code

FDA 2009 Food CodeThe Food and Drug Administration has officially released an updated Food Code for the first time since 2005.  The Food Code details procedures for implementing a food safety program in any food service environment, from grocery stores to fine dining restaurants.  The agency updates the code every four years to accommodate new developments and address ongoing food safety issues.

The most significant changes to this year’s Food Code include:

  • Leafy greens must have a time and temperature control in a HACCP food safety program
  • New requirements focus on preventing the cross contamination of food allergens and aim to improve the awareness of allergens by food service workers
  • Children’s menus cannot include cooked-to-order meats
  • Revised cleaning and sanitizing procedures for restaurant equipment

Any restaurant’s food safety program should be informed by the guidelines set out in the Food Code.  This is especially true for restaurants employing a HACCP food safety program.  The updated code addresses two of the major food safety issues of the past couple years: allergens and pathogens in fresh uncooked greens like lettuce.

To view the complete 2009 Food Code, check out this link:

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Making The Grade: Should Restaurants Post Food Safety Info?

Food SafetyThe Center For Science In The Public Interest, an advocacy group that has tangled with the food service industry before over menu nutrition labeling, is pushing for letter grades of restaurant’s latest health inspections to be posted in the front window.

The grade works on a 100-point scale and corresponds with a restaurant’s score: 90-100 being an A, etc.  A city councilwoman in Washington, D.C. has been pushing for a city ordinance requiring restaurants to display their letter grade, and her efforts have created some controversy in the food service industry.

Restaurants, led by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), point out that health inspections are not consistent from state to state or even city to city, making a grading system less reliable.  They also worry that restaurants who have had long records of cleanliness might suffer or even go out of business as a result of one bad day with the health inspector.

Yet some cities have already instituted a posted letter grade system, with good results.  New York City is the most recent convert.  Their letter grade system was instituted in March of this year.  Las Vegas, St. Louis, and Los Angeles also have similar systems.  In New York, restaurateur concerns about losing business have been addressed by allowing establishments to appeal a bad grade and are given a grace period to clean up their act before a bad grade is actually posted.

In Los Angeles, which has the longest-running food safety letter grade system, the local health department has found that hospital visits due to food poisoning have dropped 20 percent in the 11 years since their letter grade system was established.  Nationally, 76 million people are sickened by foodborne illnesses every year, and 40% of those can be traced to restaurants.Food Safety

Los Angeles eateries with an “A” grade also saw a 6% increase in sales, tying good food safety practices with real revenue instead of fear of the health inspector.

Restaurant health inspections remain difficult for consumers to obtain in many U.S. cities, and making them available is running hurdles much larger than industry opposition: budget cuts in health departments across the country has made it more difficult to institute letter grading systems.  Many health departments have been forced to cut staff, and do not have the funds to build the infrastructure required to support a letter grade system.

Regardless, the coming years will see a steady improvement in the availability of health inspection reports, whether through a letter grade system or through online archives on health department websites.  Rather than resisting the coming changes, the food service industry would do well to get out ahead of this issue and focus on making the grade every time.

This will surely result in higher expenses for restaurants already operating on razor thin margins.  But the statistics show that foodborne illness can be reduced significantly when health inspection information is made public, and the time has come to give consumers the information they demand and well deserve.

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Is Your Food Safety Program This Hardcore? It Should Be.

McDonaldsMcDonald’s hasn’t grown into a multinational restaurant chain without doing a lot of things right.  And whatever you think of their culinary achievements (or lack thereof), you can’t deny that they’ve built an empire in food service. If one lesson is clear from the rise of McDonald’s, it should be that you don’t build an empire without a premier food safety program.  As a recent article in USA Today revealed, McDonald’s is one of the best rated companies for food safety in the U.S.

How do you get that kind of recognition for your food safety program?
Through a very clear, extremely stringent program that addresses temperature and contamination issues at every stage in the food preparation process.  Incidentally, these are the same principles called for in a HACCP food safety program.  The only difference here is one of degree.

So what does a hardcore food safety program look like?

Beef is trucked to a McDonald’s food processing plant in huge steel boxes secured by a steel bolt that can only be cut by an employee at the plant.  If it’s opened any other way, they send it back.Food Safety

The beef is tested for four or five different pathogens before it arrives at the plant, randomly during processing, and after the meat has been shaped into patties and frozen.  If a test comes back positive, two hours’ worth of processed beef is disposed of, as well as another two hours’ worth before and after the affected batch.

With those kinds of standards, McDonald’s can be fairly certain their beef patties will show up at any one of their locations clean and ready to serve.  And that’s when another round of food safety kicks in.

Each manager kicks off their shift by calibrating their thermometer.  Then each meat type that will be served during that shift (chicken nuggets, patties, etc.) is cooked according to specification and then temperature tested to make sure the product is out of the temperature danger zone.

McDonald’s also ensures every patty is cooked properly with a specially designed clamshell grill that does not open until the proper temperature has been reached.  That way even the greenest line cook can’t serve undercooked meat.  In a high turnover environment like food service, foolproof safeguards when it comes to meeting temperature requirements is key.

Finally, McDonald’s doesn’t forget about the most basic component of any food safety campaign: proper handwashing.  At the start of every hour every employee washes their hands, starting with management.  And at the half hour hand sanitizer is passed around for a quick cleanup.

Unfortunately, not every restaurant out there has a food safety program even approaching McDonald’s hardcore approach.  And not many have the resources or the buying power to dictate exact standards to their suppliers.   However, there are some basic things that McDonald’s does very well that can be applied to any food safety program, no matter what your budget is, including standardized temperature and handwashing procedures, a quantitative way to qualify suppliers and the product they provide you, and a system for disposing product that is suspect.

Your program may never get to be as hardcore as McDonald’s.  But if you want to build a food service empire, or even stay in business for any length of time, you’d do well to take your food safety to the next level.

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Louisiana Restaurant Association Fighting Back Against New FDA Regulations

FDA Regulations Of Louisiana OystersThe Food & Drug Administration announced in October that it would place a ban on untreated oysters coming from the Gulf of Mexico.  Louisiana is the primary harvester and exporter of Gulf oysters, and the industry accounts for $318 million dollars each year.

Gulf oysters have been deemed a food safety threat because a particularly nasty virus, vibrio vulnificus, can infect raw oysters during summer months.  About 15 people die in the United States every year as a result of consuming raw oysters infected with the virus.

The new FDA regulations will allow the sale of properly pasteurized oysters, but Louisiana restaurants and the oyster industry say pasteurization procedures will place a prohibitive cost on the industry and cause many oyster harvesters to shut down.  Perhaps predictably, Louisiana’s representatives in Congress have quickly voiced their opposition to the regulation proposal, citing the threat to jobs and increased costs.  A little more surprising (at least to me) is the opposition Louisiana Restaurant Association’s opposition to these regulations.

The evidence, however, leaves little doubt that regulating the Gulf oyster catch makes the public safer.  California has had a ban in place on untreated Gulf oysters for six years.  In that time, deaths from bad oysters went from 40 in the 10 year period leading up to the ban to zero.

Anyone in the restaurant industry knows how important food safety is, and restaurants have taken food safety very seriously for so long precisely because trust is a key element in the success of any place preparing and serving something that could potentially make customers sick.

That’s why I find the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s opposition to these new FDA regulations a little strange.  Sure, no one wants to see the operating costs of a vital local industry go up, especially in an area of the country that’s seen its fair share of hard times in recent years.  But how can anyone in the food service industry possibly justify opposing regulations on a type of food that has been proven to cause death in a certain segment of potential customers?

That segment is admittedly small.  Yet the number of actual deaths in the spinach and tomato scares of recent years was also extremely small, and yet every restaurant and industry association reacted by pulling those items off their menus and taking whatever steps were necessary to protect consumers and avoid a food safety issue.

The Louisiana Restaurant Association’s position seems inexplicable to me.  Perhaps someone would care to clarify for me – if so, leave a comment below.

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