Food Safety in Kitchens
By Fabiana Santana

All too often, food safety stories appear as an undercover report on the local news with catchy headlines like “Dining Dirty,” “Mad Cow Madness,” and “How Safe Is Your Salad?” but not much emphasis is placed on what the industry is doing to clean up in the kitchen. Think about it. People are quick to gripe when they have gotten ill from a restaurant’s food, but rarely do they commend the staff and chef for keeping the place bacteria free.

Commendations go to Churrascaria Plataforma Rodizio, a Brazilian steakhouse in Manhattan, which has been awarded the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Food Safety for five consecutive years. The staff at the restaurant regularly walks around with thermometers to check the temperature of the salad bar offerings and the meat that is being carved to order on customers’ plates. “The Golden Apple initiative is a fantastic program, and we accept the award not for our restaurant, but for our customers.” Churrascaria owner João de Matos says. He continues, “There cannot be a better feeling than knowing you are eating in one of the cleanest restaurants in the city. People look for quality of the food, but they also look for their safety and health.”

So how exactly does a restaurant become safe? Of course following the rules helps. A new bill is working its way through the US Congress that will require food producers to strengthen food-handling, record-keeping, and safety procedures to prevent epidemics like mad cow disease from becoming local news stories. US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says that these efforts will result in a safer food supply with “fewer hospitalizations and deaths, and fewer economically devastating recalls.” In New York City’s attempt to prevent food related illnesses the Department of Health conducts inspections of all food service establishments in the city. These establishments include restaurants, retail bakeries, and “take outs” and are all subject to unannounced, surprise visits conducted by Public Health Sanitarians who are trained public health professionals with college degrees and backgrounds in the sciences. What are they looking for? Anything from insects to improper water temperature, to how far off the ground the shelves in the walk in are.

But as many people in the food industry know, sometimes even following the rules is just not enough. As technology improves, it is time for restaurants to get with the times and that means developing new ways to control surface contamination, food spoilage, and bacteria. Floors, ceilings, refrigerators, walls, and doors are common refuges for contamination and more often than not, traditional cleaners are not effective ways of combating the contaminants. Bacteria may develop adaptive resistance to cleaners, just like bacteria in the body develop resistance to antibiotics. Wakefield, Massachusetts-based Agion Technologies is the company that hopes to change that and the state of restaurant kitchens while they are at it. The company is dedicated to developing consumer- and environmentally-friendly solutions for antimicrobial protection in the kitchen. Instead of using unsafe chlorinated or synthetic chemicals in the products they make, Agion uses silver, which they refer to as nature’s antimicrobial. Joe Geary, Agion’s Vice President explains, “It makes products cleaner and safer.” Silver is actually a broad-spectrum antibiotic and has been used in science and medicine as an antibacterial agent for many years. Research has shown that microbes do not build up a resistance to silver, like they might in things like penicillin, and the FDA even recently approved the use of silver in a brand of bandage from Curad.

“Silver has been used in medicine as a bacteria suppressant for years, “ comments Geary. So the use of it in kitchen equipment is logical. He continues, “The goal is to motivate our clients to deliver not just safer food, but better tasting and fresher products, which are the result of the bacteria being suppressed. The way it works is that the treated silver provides protection against bacteria, so when any types of contaminates or bacteria come into contact with the silver, the bacteria is suppressed in kitchen equipment like ice machines and food liners by naturally and continuously resisting the growth of microbes.”

In making the kitchen a cleaner place Agion is partnering with companies like Scotsman – an ice machine manufacturer – to create equipment where bacteria can’t grow. This year the pair announced the launch of two new Scotsman ice machines that feature Agion protection. Jeff Biel, Product Manager, Scotsman Ice Systems notes, “The new Nugget and Flake ice machines are the latest additions to the award winning Prodigy® series of ice makers, all of which incorporate Agion’s natural antimicrobial protection. Utilizing Agion, which is molded directly into key ice machine components, has helped protect our Prodigy ice machines and offer a better quality ice cube and a more reliable ice machine.” Geary adds, “The product provides a fresher and cleaner taste to the user as well.”

One large restaurant group concerned about keeping things fresh for their guests is Darden Restaurants. Darden, which owns and operates chains like The Capital Grille, Olive Garden and Red Lobster, works with Agion products in the kitchen. They wrap their steak and seafood products with Agion-protected paper liners to extend the shelf life of perishable food items such as meat, poultry and fish ensuring that their customers are receiving a good, clean, and fresh product. And Publix Supermarkets, the largest and fastest-growing employee-owned supermarket chain in the United States, has adopted the FoodTouch liners for its produce section in all 1,000 stores. Paul Ford, CEO of Agion Technologies comments on how Agion is offering solutions that are changing the definition of food storage as he says, “The widespread adoption of Agion protected FoodTouch liners speaks to the value of using natural antimicrobial solutions for foodservice application.,”

While knowing that restaurants are doing their best to store and preserve their food, we have to ask, is it enough? What happens when you properly store food that is already contaminated? Remember the great tomato salmonella outbreak of 2008? Or the spinach recall earlier this year? All the food liners in the world won’t help if the food products are exposed to bacteria early on in their cycle of production. And when people demand their food in lightning speed and for cheaper prices that can happen. While food packaging plants must adhere to strict sanitation and training standards when it comes to food safety, the need to make money sometimes trumps the need maintain those standards. For example, it was determined that the 2007 peanut butter salmonella outbreak was caused by a moisture problem from a leaky roof at the food manufacturing plant, which eventually led to those unspeakable horrors those evening news programs love so much. According to the FDA, inspectors found cockroaches – dead and alive – a leaky roof; brown and black slime; mold on ceilings and walls and gaping holes large enough for vermin to enter. Mops and peanut-processing equipment were washed in the same sink. Probably to save time. It gives fast food nation a whole new meaning.

No matter how much we try to deny it, we are a nation fueled by fast food and take out whether it is a drive through scenario or chopped salad lunch spot. Quick food is a necessity in our lives, but that doesn’t mean that the care taken to secure the prep area needs to be taken lightly as well.

Prepping your machines properly is often the first line of defense against food borne illness. So how often do you consider the last time the slicer at the deli was cleaned or how your burger actually became a burger? Meat slicers and grinders can actually be among the most difficult items to clean in restaurants and therefore are highly hazardous pieces of kitchen equipment in terms of microbiological germs. Ross Lombardo, owner and operator of Rare Bar & Grill, located in the Shelbourne Hotel in New York City, knows the importance of high quality equipment when it comes to dealing with raw meat. He says, “One of the best things a restaurant dealing with raw meat can do is grind their own meat. Grinding our meat in-house eliminates pathogens. When you buy meat that has been ground already, pathogens exist on the outside part of the meat. Using our own equipment, which we clean and control, eliminates that transfer or change of bacteria.” When grinders get hot from use, they begin to cook the meat, making it unsafe to then cook and serve to customers. Lombardo notes, “We grind a lot of meat, so the metal pieces get hot. The minute that heat happens, we stop. And every night, we break down the entire machine and disinfect it.”

But controlling and cleaning the kitchen equipment that comes into contact with the food is just one step. Lombardo continues, “We are constantly training our staff about food allergies and the importance proper food temperatures. We color coordinate our cutting boards for vegetables, meat, poultry, and fish. And most importantly, we take the temperature of all food that is delivered here. Meat, fish, dairy, eggs all must arrive below 42 degrees and we practice a first in, first out policy.” Lombardo even employs an outside firm to spring surprise mock inspections on his team, kind of like your elementary school fire drills. He admits, “It’s a great way to remind everyone of the importance of the basics. Like measuring the shelves in the walk in, checking the temperature on the dishwasher for the wash and rinse cycles, making sure our water filtration system is working properly. Those things are important.”

Rare, which provides all the in-house food service to the Shelbourne, including room service and breakfast and lunch service, makes sure that the safety they practice in the kitchen, extends to their guests. Lombardo explains his comprehensive approach, “Because we are a full food and beverage provider for the hotel, everything that comes out of our kitchen and restaurant comes back to us. It’s not like another group will get the utensils, clean them, then hand them to us. We do it all. The dictation of safety comes from us.”

Even with these in-kitchen practices in place, food safety outside the kitchen is still a growing concern. In 2005, it took the USDA months to determine that Mad Cow Disease had hit the United States. And did you know that reusable grocery totes could be breeding grounds for bacteria when not used and washed properly? Organizations like the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) are actively working to train retailers and wholesalers of food products food safety programs and have help lines available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to assist members in need of crisis management. FMI president and chief executive officer Leslie G. Sarasin says selling safe food is a priority for supermarkets.” The most important goal of America’s food retailers and wholesalers is to sell safe products to their customers. To meet this goal, the FMI is supporting much needed food safety reforms by working with the Congress, the administration and other food industry associations and related organizations to improve the overall safety off all foods – domestic and imported.”

In addition to the crisis hotline, FMI offers their food retailers and grocery wholesalers trade shows and training seminars that include exhibits, workshops and exhibits showcasing the newest food safety technology available. They have even implemented the Safe Quality Food institute, a program that provides independent certification that a supplier’s food safety and quality management system complies with international and domestic food safety regulations. This enables suppliers to assure their customers that food has been produced, processed, prepared and handled according to the highest possible standards, at all levels of the supply chain.

As the food industry faces ongoing challenges to find superior, more efficient and cost-effective tools to secure food safety, many involved agree that the most advanced levels of security won’t prevent food borne illness from spreading when the most basic safety methods are ignored. “All the prep in the world won’t help you if you don’t pay attention to the basics.” remarks Lombardo.

To reiterate that point, the National Restaurant Association created the National Food Safety Education Month. The month-long campaign is held every September and focuses on the importance of food safety education for the restaurant and foodservice industry, while raising the awareness of the industry’s commitment to food safety. This year’s theme was “Food Safety Thrives When You Focus on Five.” And the fab five are:
1. Purchase Food From Safe Sources
2. Clean and Sanitize
3. Cross Out Cross Contamination
4. Avoid time and temperature abuse – Use a Thermometer
5. Practice personal hygiene – Wash those hands!

Certainly not late night news material when you put it that way.