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Food Safety and Contamination
Many food safety and contamination concerns are matters of common sense: food should be both heated and cooled to certain temperatures, should not be left out for extended periods of time, should be covered and stored properly, should be stored separately from chemicals and cleaners, etc. Following these guidelines will not only ensure that food is kept safe from foodborne illnesses and contaminants, but that it is imbued with the highest quality and care possible.
Foodborne illnesses are illnesses bred from bacterial food contamination. These include illnesses such as E. coli and Listeriosis (infection from Listeria exposure). Ensuring foods remain free from foodborne illnesses can be achieved in two ways: through proper storage and proper cooking. Proper storage requires that food handlers store all food in temperatures below 41 degrees Fahrenheit (for refrigeration), and exceeding 135 degrees Fahrenheit (storing hot and cooking). Foods held between these temperatures should only be given a 4-hour window before they are either placed back into storage or thrown away. Foods being cooked should first be cooked to 135 degrees Fahrenheit and higher to kill any remaining germs.
While the majority of foodborne illnesses result from bacterial contamination, some illnesses have been caused by viruses and diseases from food service workers. For this reason, it is vitally important to wear protective gear when handling food (keeping hair away from food and avoiding skin-to-food contact), and to practice proper hygiene, through washing your hands for a minimum of 30 seconds with hot water and soap.
While foodborne illnesses pose a risk to everyone, certain populations are more at risk than others. They are:
- Young children
- The elderly
- People who are immuno-compromised
Biological, Physical, and Chemical Contaminants
Food contamination takes on many different forms, including biological, physical, and chemical forces, as well as potential allergens. Contamination can occur due to improper food storage (storing food next to chemicals), to improper growing conditions, to exposure to parasites, and to the incorrect use of preparation materials. Below, each of these will be tackled and identified.
Biological contaminates are contaminants found in nature. These include bacteria, parasites, fungi, and environmental toxins. The best way to prevent contamination from biological agents is to adhere to food storage and preparation guidelines, keeping foods at the proper temperatures during storage and cooking.
- Bacteria – Bacteria thrive in moist environments between 41 degrees Fahrenheit and 135 degrees Fahrenheit. The FDA considers three types of bacteria as most dangerous because they are very contagious and cause severe illness: Salmonella Typhi, Shigella, and Escherichia Coli, more commonly referred to as E.coli
- Salmonella: Salmonella comes from people and is often found in beverages or ready-to-eat foods such as fruits and vegetables. The best way to prevent salmonella is to wash your hands and ensure all food is cooked to the proper temperature.
- Shigella: Shigella originates from human feces. It is spread from flies and improper hand-washing. The best way to prevent Shigella is to observe good hygiene practices and eliminate insects around food.
- E. coli: E. coli originates from cattle intestines and is found in ground beef or fresh produce that may be contaminated from farm-run off, such as lettuce or strawberries. The best way to avoid E. coli is to avoid cross-contamination between ground beef and other foods and to always wash produce before ingestion.
- Viruses―Viruses do not grow in food but can be transferred to food through the fecal-oral route. Sneezing, coughing, and improper hand-washing practices are some of the most common routes of transmission. Hepatitis A and the Norovirus are the most common viruses found in food. They are typically linked with ready-to-eat foods and shellfish.
- Parasites―Parasites are most often found in seafood, wild game meats, and foods that have been washed with contaminated water. To eliminate parasites, always cook foods to the recommended temperature. If the seafood or meat is supposed to be served undercooked or raw (such as in sushi or sashimi), ensure it is stored at the proper temperature and served to the guest immediately.
- Fungi―Fungi includes yeasts, molds, and mushrooms. Fungi pose a problem when they produce toxins that can make the consumer sick. Always be sure the mushrooms you are serving are safe to eat, and throw out any food that has developed mold. In addition to the typical vomiting/diarrhea that many foodborne illnesses cause, ingesting toxic fungi can also cause neurological symptoms, such as a reverse hot/cold sensation or tingling in the extremities.
Physical contaminants refer to contaminants of an actual foreign physical object. These can include insects or other foreign pests in food or may refer to shards of broken metal or other small, potentially hazardous objects that may be found in food. This also includes human items such as fingernails, hair, and skin. The best means of avoiding this particular contaminant is through a thorough inspection of food items and observation of safe food preparation and hygiene guidelines.
Chemical contaminates are contaminants from cleaning supplies, improper surface materials, improper metals, and pesticides. While some pesticide exposure cannot be avoided in conventional foods, thorough cleaning of pesticide-exposed food greatly lessens the chemical contaminant. To avoid chemical contamination in other mediums, store and use cleaning materials a great distance from all food items, and wait the recommended time before using a surface cleaned with chemical agents. Adhere to the rules of food preparation and avoid using soft or unsafe metals and plastics in cooking.
While allergens are not unsafe for everyone, even the slightest amount of exposure to a food allergy can prove toxic. For this reason, you must acquaint yourself with the equipment you use, the manufacturing facilities your food employs, and the ingredients found in your food items. To avoid allergen exposure during food preparation, be sure to clean and sanitize surfaces and utensils before and after each use. Acquaint yourself with common food allergies, and be aware of the presence of these allergens in your food. Common allergies include nuts, dairy, soy, gluten, soy, fish, and wheat.
The Flow of Food
As food comes in and out of your establishment, it requires safe handling and preparation. While it may seem simple enough to receive and store food, you must ensure that all received food is stored properly and is within its safe use dates. As food enters and leaves an establishment, it must constantly be monitored for freshness and safety.
Purchasing, Receiving, and Storing
When purchasing food, always be sure to purchase from reputable establishments. While it may be tempting to ship food in from unapproved areas, or to go for the cheapest food option, adhering to safety guidelines while producing and storing food is pivotal. Read company statements and practices before deciding to purchase with that particular entity, and make sure safe practices are being followed.
When food is being received, it must adhere to all federal and state guidelines. In addition, you must ensure that all food is delivered at safe temperatures. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
41 degrees or colder for cold foods
45 degrees or lower for live shellfish, milk, and eggs
135 degrees or hotter for hot food
All frozen foods must remain frozen during delivery
No matter which type of food you are handling, it should always be promptly stored after being received. Proper food storage has been touched on, but can be restated here: cold foods should be stored at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, while hot foods must be stored at 135 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Failure to do so will likely result in the introduction of foodborne illness due to bacterial contamination.
As mentioned above, proper food preparation is essential in delivering safe, high quality food. When preparing food, be sure to use only high-quality metal and plastic utensils, and be sure to properly clean and sanitize all preparation surfaces and utensils. When cooking, vegetables and fruits should be cooked to 135 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, while meats should be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Before cooking, food should be thawed via cool water, a refrigerator, or a microwave.
When serving food, be keenly aware of all food temperatures. Food should not be allowed to remain between 41 degrees Fahrenheit and 135 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 4 hours; food left out for more than 4 hours must be discarded. Serving already-served food is not permitted unless food is sealed and untouched. Finally, self-service stations should only be used with fresh plates. Patrons should not be permitted to reuse dirty plates or utensils because this can contaminate dishes placed out for service.
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Food Safety Management Systems
Before employees are permitted to work with food, safety programs should have taken place instructing the proper implementation of personal hygiene, food service and preparation, and managerial practices. Managerial practices include constantly checking food stations and workers to ensure the necessary practices are being observed. Management should also never admit fault in the case of a foodborne illness outbreak. Instead, management should work to discover the initial culprit and immediately eradicate said cause.
Cleaning and Sanitation
Cleaning and sanitation are extremely important in maintaining a well-rounded, safe eating environment. Proper cleaning will help eradicate pests such as mice and cockroaches, while sanitation will assist in warding off foodborne illness and cross-contamination between food items. Following the procedures for cleaning and sanitizing will ensure both workers and customers enjoy a hassle-free, safe dining experience.
Principles of Cleaning and Sanitation
Cleaning and sanitizing are different actions but generally go hand in hand. Cleaning is the process of removing food or other items from a surface; sanitizing is the act of removing organisms from a surface to improve safety and reduce the risk of exposure to harmful bacteria or fungi. The two come together in a compound process: wash, rinse, sanitize, and air dry. Failure to complete these steps in that order will result in an ineffective washing and sanitizing process. Both cleaning and sanitizing agents should be stored well away from food items, and rags and other cleaning tools should be changed at least every 4 hours to prevent contamination.
Pest management involves three steps: denying pets access to the establishment, deny pests food, shelter, and water, and work with a licensed pest control operator to remove any pests that have made a home for themselves. While prevention is best, be on the lookout for signs of any existing pest issues. These include roach droppings and egg casings (pepperlike spots and cases that look like thick grains of dark rice), and rodent droppings and actions (including gnawing, nesting, and leaving tracks). Just as cleaning agents should be stored away from food, on-site pest removal agents must be stored away from food. Professional pest removal should be completed after business hours and after employees have gone home, and all surfaces should be cleaned and sanitized thoroughly before use.