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Are You Ready For Flu Season?

Incorporate Anti-Flu Policies Into Your Food Safety ProgramPersonally, if I never hear another story about H1N1 (swine) flu again, I’ll die a happy man.  Unfortunately, the grim reality is everyone is going to have to take steps to combat the spread of flu this winter, and restaurants are no exception.  Organizations like the National Restaurant Association are already educating restaurants about ways to inhibit the spread of viruses, and the food service industry as a whole is taking this flu season very seriously.

For restaurants, preventing the spread of viruses comes down to removing two things: sick employees from the building and any potential contaminant from employee’s hands.

Staff that is exhibiting flu-like symptoms should be sent home immediately and told to return one full day after recovering from the worst part of the sickness.  From a management standpoint, make sure multiple people in the restaurant are responsible for identifying staff with symptoms so that nobody slips through the cracks.  Also make sure you communicate clearly with your staff about the importance of staying home while they’re sick.  Finally, it’s important to have a plan in place in case multiple people are sick at once so that you don’t miss a beat during the rush.  This is where time spent on cross-training will pay you back handsomely.

Handwashing is a much more straightforward proposition.  Review proper handwashing techniques with your employees and step up the enforcement of your standard procedures on when to wash hands.  Many restaurants have also started introducing disposable gloves for kitchen staff that directly contact food during preparation; if you haven’t added this to your food safety program yet, now is the time to consider it seriously.

Besides technique and enforcement, the other key to ensuring your employees have clean hands is good equipment.  The problem is that the very viruses you’re trying to contain tend to collect around communal areas with a lot of moisture, like sinks and faucets.

Investing in some good hand sink equipment can go a long way towards improving your restaurant’s food safety.  Some key elements to a good hand sink include:This Hand Sink Has It All: Soap, Towels & Knee Pedal

Easily accessible towel and soap dispensers.  Dispensers make sure your employees actually use the soap and the towels and limit the number of surfaces they touch after cleaning their hands.

Knee or foot pedals.  A pedal allows staff washing their hands to turn the water off and one without having to use their freshly cleaned hands.  Pedals also tend to use less water because they automatically shut off, which mean lower utility bills for you.  These pedals can also be retrofitted on existing hand sinks.

Wrist blade faucet handles.  Wrist blade handles are the same ones you see in doctor’s offices.  Their shape allows you to use your forearm or wrist to turn off the water instead of your hands, which helps prevent re-contamination.  Use wrist blade faucet handles if you don’t have a knee or foot pedal.

Stainless steel sinks.  Stainless is easy to clean and doesn’t offer a friendly surface for pathogens to hang out.  Almost all new hand sinks are stainless, and if your staff is still using an older sink, now is a great time to upgrade.

The food service industry is taking the spread of flu this season very seriously for a very important reason: it’s good for business.  Widespread sickness doesn’t make people want to go out and eat, and after the beating the industry has taken over the past year, an outbreak connected with a restaurant would be disastrous.

For all we know, an outbreak might be inevitable.  Having the right combination of standard procedures, managerial enforcement, and equipment is the best you can do to protect your business against infection.

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Can Google Improve Food Safety?

Bar GraphA pilot project currently in development at Google will enable health officials to spot outbreaks of deadly food borne illnesses 7 to 10  days faster than the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) current system.

Google accomplishes this by tracking queries entered into its search engine by people who are trying to find information on symptoms and sicknesses they’re experiencing.  Google has already launched Flu Trends, which tracks search queries like “flu symptoms” and identifies geographic areas where those queries are spiking.

The data Google collects matches the flu trends published by the CDC, suggesting Google’s information is accurate.  Now Google is planning to apply this system to E. coli and salmonella outbreaks so that the source of the contamination can be contained much more rapidly than it is today.

Seems like a great idea, right?  Not everyone is so excited.  Privacy advocates have already raised the alarm, warning that any database that collects and tracks the behavior of such a large number of free citizens will inevitably lead to abuse.

Google counters that this information is for the greater good and that individuals will remain anonymous.  Of course, anonymity has been promised before when it comes to large databases and it seems like there’s always a leak.  Just ask the thousands of Americans who have had their financial information compromised by leaks and hacks in the past two years.

For the food service industry, Google’s trend tracker could be a double-edged sword.  Of course, food safety is always a primary concern for restaurateurs.  But what if Google, in the admittedly honorable process of identifying a contamination source, starts naming restaurants frequented by people who are getting sick?  Those businesses would be dead and gone in a matter of minutes, regardless of the level of responsibility they deserved for the outbreak.

So where should such a powerful tool draw the line?  And where is Google planning on drawing that line?  The technology is still so new it’s impossible to tell yet, but as the data  we enter into the world’s most popular and powerful search engine gets used to track our behaviors, the conflict between privacy and information seems more and more inevitable.

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