National Food Safety Education Month runs through the end of September and this year's campaign marks the first time the National Restaurant Association has partnered with SCA, a global hygiene company, to offer information and resources for those who work in the foodservice industry.
SCA, which manufactures Tork brand away-from-home paper products, has been working with the NRA this summer to create succinct messaging and training methods emphasizing food safety basics that foodservice operators can communicate to their staff and patrons. This information is available through social media, blogs, podcasts and training materials.
The objective is to involve and commit more operators to food safety and hygiene practices so they "understand how beneficial it is to the health and wellness of their patrons, as well as their bottom line," according to Suzanne Cohen, foodservice segment director for SCA Tissue North America.
The topic of food safety has moved to the forefront recently, after salmonella outbreaks and undercooked meat concerns. The Centers for Disease Control released research estimating that 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths per year stem from foodborne illnesses.
Although many of those cases come from the supply chain, the topic is also critical for restaurant operators and their employees. Research from the CDC concluded that 52 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks are spread through public establishments such as restaurants, and 34 percent of foodborne illnesses can be traced directly back to the hands of foodservice employees.
"Our industry serves 130 million guests daily, and we know that it's critical to train our employees in safe food handling practices," said Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the NRA. "There is nothing more important than the health and safety of our guests at restaurants around the country."
From a health inspector's point of view
This year's NFSEM theme is "Lessons Learned from the Health Inspection." Five sessions, which each include training sheets for operators to assign to their employees, cover food safety practices from the perspective of a health inspector. The topics are how to work with a health inspector; handling food; cleaning and sanitizing; proper food storage techniques; and handling utensils and equipment.
Taking an inspector-perspective approach is important because a lot of operators may not know everything they're looking for, Cohen said.
"The (food safety) topic might seem basic, but it can also be scary for some operators," she said. "When a health inspector shows up, there is a risk of failure and that information getting out to the community and that can be overwhelming."
Some tips on how to work with a health inspector include asking for identification from anyone claiming to be one; not letting anyone in the back of the house without that proper identification; not making an inspector wait to come inside the restaurant; answering all of an inspector's questions; and being positive.
"They're there to help, so it's important not to be fearful, but rather to consider it an opportunity to confirm what you're doing right and fixing what you're not," Cohen said.
Hand and counter sanitation
Hand washing may be one of the simplest, yet most critical lessons in promoting food safety. Cohen said 80 percent of all infections spread via hands.
"People are washing their hands, I'm just not sure if they're doing it correctly or enough," she said. "It has to be constant."
Doing it correctly means using warm water, scrubbing for 20 seconds, rinsing fully and drying completely. It also means washing thoroughly after touching anything, including cash registers, door handles, food and money. Cohen suggests adding more hand washing stations throughout the restaurant if it encourages consistency and thoroughness.
Health inspectors will watch employees to see if food is being handled in a way that keeps pathogens from being transferred from an employee to food. Employees should be trained to avoid handling food immediately after touching their face or hair, and to wash their hands immediately after touching any part of the body or after sneezing or coughing.
Health inspectors have their eyes open for proper sanitizing procedures, such as whether or not food-contact surfaces are cleaned with a detergent solution, rinsed and air dried. Operators should train employees on how to mix the sanitizing solutions and use a test kit to check its strength.
Cohen also suggests using different wiping cloths for front-of-the-house sanitation and back-of-the-house sanitation, and color coding them to signify the difference.
Food storage and equipment
While some health inspectors may miss a quick face touch, they're certain to catch a restaurant's food storage practices.
For example, food shouldn't be stored in used cans, as they can't be cleaned properly to be safe. It also shouldn't be stored in plastic garbage bags or new garbage cans, which are made of materials unsafe for food.
Containers should always be labeled, including the name of the food inside and a use-by or expiration date.
Also, Cohen said, condiment bottles shouldn't be refilled if they're empty as they can't be cleaned properly. This may surprise many operators, as it's a common practice in the industry.
Getting the message out beyond NFSEM
While the NRA and SCA have teamed up to offer information about food safety practices, operators should communicate the message well beyond NFSEM, Cohen said, and to be proactive with employee training.
"It is critical to have a plan in place and make sure all of your employees understand that plan," she said. "You have to continually reinforce that message."
The NRA and SCA both predict a lingering collaboration long after September ends. Annika Stensson, spokesperson for the NRA, said the SCA is a natural partner because they're active on this specific issue.
"They do great work in the (food safety) space. This is a wider collaboration that goes beyond NFSEM and we're looking forward to those opportunities," she said.
Cohen added that more informational applications are already in the works, to keep the subject top-of-mind at all times.
"Because of NFSEM, new materials were released for the campaign. But we'll have more tools launching soon," Cohen said. "Food safety is a priority year-round and you have to constantly reinforce the message."
Read more about food safety.
Photo provided by JoeinSouthernCA.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.