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How To Earn a Passing Grade on Food & Health Inspection

How To Earn a Passing Grade on Food & Health InspectionRestaurateurs have a lot on their plate; hiring and training employees, attracting new customers, providing quality ingredients, keeping diners happy, treating workers well to start, but the list never ends. On top of all this these businesses must also make sure that their restaurant can pass a health inspection with flying colors.

Restaurant owners know this is harder than it sounds. It is well known in the industry that inspection requirements and transparency differ by state, county or even city. Different parts of the country grade on different scales with different requirements that need to be met.

Health departments across the country are also making these inspection scores more visible to the public. Health scores are revealed in the newspaper, online or are even required to be posted in the front window of a restaurant in some cities.

Restaurateurs must be educated and completely aware of their jurisdiction’s health codes and inspection policies in order to protect their business from the wrath of a bad inspection score.

Health inspections focus on food temperatures, food handling, employee hygiene, facility maintenance and pest and rodent control. A restaurant can receive a low grade for anything from food cross contamination to missing ceiling tiles to cockroaches.

Restaurant health inspections can be a good thing or a very bad thing for a business depending on how its operation is run. With the public’s heightened interest in good food with quality ingredients health inspections are as important now as they have ever been. A couple good or bad reviews could quickly swing consumer opinion on a restaurant and affect its business.

A new restaurant grading system was implemented in New York City in July 2010. This grading system requires restaurants to post their health inspection grades in the front window of the business. This makes receiving a good grade that much more important for restaurant owners.

The problem is some of the cooking requirements in the health code are hard for cooks to work with while still trying to maintain good tasting food. These cooking requirements indicate temperatures at which food must be stored and served at. Some temperature requirements go against decades of cooking practices.

Table d’Hote, a French Bistro in New York City, serves a country-style terrine that is best served at room temperature to give the dish a soft texture. The city’s health code requires the restaurant to serve terrine frozen, which William Knapp, the restaurant’s owner, knows is not appetizing. He says serving the dish according to regulations, “just not a satisfying experience for our customers.” Even though Knapp knows the dish is not the same, he is forced to serve it this way in order to avoid a 7 point violation that would bring his restaurant’s health inspection score down to a B.

Other restaurant owners risk violations for the sake of better tasting food. Some chefs decide that some requirements are not completely necessary and decide to ignore them in favor of their own discretion on what is safe. An example of this is a chef allowing steak or poultry to reach room temperature before throwing them into the pan. The city requires them to begin cooking these meats while they are still frozen. This is something that people do while cooking at home and doesn’t seem like a serious infraction but could actually drop a restaurant’s grade down a letter or even two and greatly affect the business’ public image.

One way to avoid health regulations and prepare a dish in a different way is by customer request. If a diner requests a meal be prepared outside of health department regulations, only then can the restaurant disregard regulations.

There are a few ways restaurateurs can help induce these requests from customers:

  • Train servers to inform customers about the regulations and how they changed the traditional cooking method
  • Add a note below menu items that are prepared differently because of health inspections
  • Post a list of health regulations somewhere in the restaurant to spread awareness on the issue

The key for restaurateurs in the case of health inspections is to be aware of your jurisdiction’s requirements. This can be done by simply doing some online research about your state’s health inspection guidelines. These requirements vary by region and can be altered when deemed necessary. Knowing what is required is the first step toward meeting all of your health department’s guidelines. With public awareness on the issue at an all-time high a good score is all the more important.

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Food Safety Tips: Safe Seafood

Food Safety Tips: Safe SeafoodFresh seafood will always sell well in your restaurant, and for many businesses it’s a staple item on the menu.  Making sure the seafood you serve is safe requires some careful maintenance and preparation, and it’s good to develop some strategies for ensuring the seafood you serve is safe.  More than likely you already have guidelines in place for serving other types of protein like beef, chicken, and pork.  Preparing seafood requires many of the same precautions along with some additional strategies to make sure you serve safe seafood every time.

Some food safety tips for serving seafood:

Know your distributor.  Always buy seafood from a reputable distributor whom you can trust to deliver a product that has been properly maintained.  This means fresh seafood and shellfish are kept at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower throughout the entire food distribution process.  You have to be able to trust that the distributor is on top of this before the product reaches your door.  Be sure to shop around for several different distributors and weigh price versus quality until you find the right balance between the two.  If you have any doubts, ask to see certified product tags.

Manage raw product.  Once that seafood or shellfish comes through your door, managing it properly is your responsibility.  Store fresh product at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower as soon as possible after you receive it.  Seafood should be stored in an airtight container or using cling wrap until it is ready to be prepared.  Use a thermometer or a data logger to track the temperature of your seafood to make sure it is staying out of the “danger zone” between 41 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Store live shellfish, lobsters, and crabs in a ventilated container covered with a damp cloth.  Storing live shellfish in salt water shortens their lifespan, and using fresh water will kill them outright, so take care when deciding how to store live shellfish.

Before you use seafood touch and smell it.  Assuming you have been tracking temperature and know that the seafood product you are about to prepare has been maintained below 41 degrees Fahrenheit, the fastest and easiest way to make sure the product is safe is by using your senses.  Clean, fresh seafood should have a mild smell.  A fishy or sour smell is a telltale sign of contamination.  Fresh seafood should also be soft yet firm to the touch.  A mushy or dry, hard feel also indicates contamination.

Avoid cross-contamination.  While preparing seafood product on the line, take care to avoid cross-contamination.  The best way to accomplish this is to use color coded knives and cutting boards during preparation.  That way your kitchen staff knows which knives and cutting boards have been used on raw seafood and can avoid using them on other items being prepared.  Also make sure your staff follows proper handwashing techniques and uses disposable gloves to avoid contamination during preparation.

Cook seafood to the proper temperature.  All seafood served in your restaurant should reach an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit when cooked.

Food Safety Tips: Safe Seafood

Sushi and other seafood served raw require extra care

Serving sushi or other kinds of raw fish and seafood add a whole other element of risk to your customer.  If you do serve raw fish or shellfish, like oysters, the guidelines above that cover temperature, cross-contamination, and handwashing become even more important.  Also, many states require that seafood to be served as sushi must be commercially frozen first to kill harmful parasites and viruses that may be present.  Check with local and state laws to make sure you are in compliance.

Seafood can be a delicate product to store and prepare properly while avoiding contamination, but a little extra work and some attention to detail can yield some very popular dishes for your menu that will have customers coming back for more.  Having a clear set of guidelines for maintaining the food safety of seafood products is only half the battle.

The real fight is training and educating your staff on following these guidelines and then conducting regular quality control measures to ensure the standards you have set are being met.  Being vigilant about food safety procedures is the only way to achieve real success in any food safety program, whether it’s for seafood or any other item on your menu.

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The EndoTherm Thermometer: Does It Really Help You Save Energy and Improve Food Safety?

The EndoTherm Thermometer: Does It Really Help You Save Energy and Improve Food Safety?To be honest, there has been a lot of skepticism among the people I have talked to in the restaurant supply business when they first encounter the EndoTherm Thermometer.  Maybe it’s the appearance: the oversized outer plastic shell, which houses a normal alcohol thermometer immersed in a special silicone gel, gives the impression of a child-safe toy, meant to be too big for choking.  Maybe it’s the purpose: the EndoTherm accurately reads food temperature rather than air temperature, which sounds a little hokey to the old hands in the industry.

So what is the EndoTherm all about, anyway?  Well, the official party line is that the gel around that regular alcohol thermometer mimics food product: when food freezes, the gel freezes, and the thermometer can therefore get an accurate reading of what’s going on inside your refrigerated product, as opposed to what the air around that product is doing.

Why is that good?  There are two official reasons:

1) Air temperature varies in refrigeration units, especially ones that are opened and closed on a regular basis, like display cases or prep tables.  A thermometer that only measure air temp is affected by how air is moving around the unit, and, especially if it’s at the back, away from the door, it could be reading colder than the food product sitting by the constantly opening door.  This could affect food safety, since it’s possible to have food sitting in the danger zone even though the air temp thermometer is saying everything is fine.

If you were to place a couple EndoTherm thermometers around your refrigeration unit, one right by the door and some others in the middle and at the back, you would know just how well food in different spots were holding temperature.

2) You might also have the opposite problem: you are running the unit too cold.  Again, airflow varies in any refrigeration unit and that can affect the air temp thermometer.  Warmer air coming in from the opened and closed door might be bumping your thermometer up a degree or two, causing you to turn the thermostat down to keep everything below 40 degrees.  And it’s possible that your food product is sitting at a very comfortable 35 degrees or so, unaffected by those little blasts of warm air.

Again, the placement of a few EndoTherms around the refrigeration unit might reveal that you can turn the thermostat up and still maintain food safety.  And every degree you turn up translates into an 8% savings on the energy usage for that unit.  Any restaurateur who has seen the electricity bill knows just how much money that means.

So maybe the EndoTherm isn’t so hokey after all.  This thermometer was dreamed up by two fairly famous inventors in England and apparently it has been all the rage over there, and is just now catching on in North America.  The reputation of the creators lends some credibility to the claim “accurately mimics food temperature.”

I think the jury is still out.  Skepticism dies hard.  I would love to hear from some people who have used the EndoTherm and have found it to be everything they ever dreamed of, and people who thought it really would be better as a kid’s toy.  If you have some real world experience with this thermometer, leave a comment below and tell us about it!

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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.

Vital Food Safety Equipment: Data Loggers

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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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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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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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.

Restaurant Food Safety Tips: Managing TemperatureWhen 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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