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Food Safety Blog From MCCHD

February 8, 2012

Stomaching Valentine's Day

So... I am back!  Yay!  We at City-County Health had quite the hustle at the end of last year and things like the blog fell by the wayside once again.  I think I am almost fully recovered from it-- I think.  :-)  But-- good news: I am giving up two programs this year to focus more on the newsletter, FoodLine, food safety training, plan review, and the blog!  I am quite excited. 

Now onto the meat and potatoes! Another "holiday" is almost upon us.  Yes, that day hated by many singles and forgotten by many a significant other: Valentine's Day. I won't tell you my opinion on the day, only that I save a personal day every year so that I don't have to observe others getting flowers and smiling in order to spend it at home cooking, baking, and putting away my Christmas tree (a task that depresses me, might as well get it all done in one day)... and yes, rum may be involved. Which, cooking and baking-- brings me to my point: Valentine's Day is no time to slack on food safety.  Ah ha!  See how I brought that right back around???  Face it.   Nothing would make the day any worse, or for those of you with spectacular plans, nothing would damper the romance more than getting a foodborne illness.  Yes, you can prevent having a sh--, ummm... crappy, Valentine's Day.

Here are my Valentine's food safety tips to make stomaching the day a little easier:

1. Be an educated date.  Look through our food safety inspection database to choose a restaurant that suits your tastes both in cuisine and practice.  Overall, Missoula food establishments do a great job, but knowing the ins and outs of where you are going never hurts.  Also remember to look at several inspections for each establishment.  Inspections are just snapshots, and everyone can have a bad day. It's the repeated concerns noted by inspectors that tells you more about how a place operates.  When looking at reports make sure that you make the distinction between the critical items, or the ones more likely to lead to illness, and the non-critical items, or the items that may indirectly influence food safety.

2. If you take any of your dinner home, and cannot put it in the refrigerator within 2 hours, discard it.

3. If you are going to be an awesome date and cook for your significant other, make sure that you follow the following basic food safety tips at home:

* Wash hands with warm water and soap prior to handling food and between raw meat or eggs and ready-to-eat items.
*Keep raw foods separate from ready-to-eat items at all times.  Separate them in the cart or basket when shopping; store raw meat below ready-to-eat items like veggies in the refrigerator; and, clean counters, cutting boards, knives, etcetera that you used on raw items before using them for ready-to-eat foods.  If you have a sanitizer available for surfaces, great!
*Temp raw meats to ensure a minimum cooking temperature: 165F for chicken and turkey, 155F for ground beef and pork, and 145F for whole cuts of beef or pork.
*If your date is late, keep cold foods in the refrigerator, or hot on the stove or in the oven.
*Chill anything leftover, and if you make anything in advance of the dinner, make sure that it was properly cooled before you use it.

So there you go... have a good Valentine's Day and be food safety savvy.  I will be doing the same in my kitchen at home as I bake up treats while sipping some Cap'n and singing to Etta James.

Miscellaneous/Consumer Safety





August 23, 2011

Why do I need a prep sink?

Sometimes in plan review, I get asked a very simple question: if I have a three-compartment sink, why do I need a prep sink too?  The answer is both simple and complicated... :-) YAY! 

The simple explanation is as follows: a prep sink is designated solely for food preparation in order to prevent cross-contamination. 

Contamination from what?  Many things!  Think about everything that happens at the three-comp.  There are chemicals that we don't want in our food like bleach, quat, and dish soap.  There are also dirty dishes with food debris that you don't want near ready-to-eat food and a possibility for contamination from customer plates and utensils that come back to get washed.  None of these things mix well with keeping food safe.

In addition, food prep sinks are important because of the way they are plumbed to waste through an air gap.  An air gap, simply put, is a physical air space between the bottom of the drainpipe leading from the sink and where it drains to the sewer, most often through the floor sink or hub drain.  This prevents sewage from getting up into the sink where food will be in the case of a sewage back up. 

The complicated response to the questions is yes, sometimes there are cases where a three-compartment sink has been approved to double as a food prep sink, but this is extremely rare, and the applicant had to apply in writing for a rule modification.  The applicant had to make a really strong case as to how they can prevent contamination and accommodate the amount of prep they needed to do in their 3-comp.  Even in cases where a modification is granted, there is still a caveat that says, if the applicant cannot provide adequate separation, or their operation expands in any way, they will need to put in a prep sink.

Plan Review/Facility
July 29, 2011

Calibrating Thermometers

So it has been awhile.  I have to admit, with everything going on lately, I have been completely remiss in my blogging duties, and-- believe it or not, people have commented! Please accept my apologies for getting behind in my journaling.  I hope it never happens to this extent again.  And you know, I have to say that I have missed it.  It's one of my favorite parts of the job!

So-- on to today's topic!  Thermometers.  Yes, important little gizmos in the kitchen whether you are at home or in the restaurant.  Temperature control is vital in so many ways.  Think about all the ways we rely on it to keep food safe as a critical control point: cooking, hot holding, cold holding, cooling, reheating... it's no wonder why time/temperature is the number one cause of foodborne illness out of "The Big Five".  So how come if temperature is such a "Big" deal do people stash their thermometers in their junk drawers, lose them, drop them, not know hot to use them, and worst yet-- not have one at all.  I recently did an inspection where the establishment was cooking foods without a thermometer, and no shock, they were undercooking every dish.  Another establishment I visited was doing a great job of taking temps; however, they didn't know how far to stick thermometer into the food to get an accurate reading, nor had they ever calibrated it.  Needless to say, they were going through the motions thinking they were doing the right thing, but between the thermometer being 12 degrees off, and it being used improperly, they were wasting their efforts.

So-- let's talk about calibrating thermometers to get the most from our kitchen friend.

There are two ways to calibrate them: the boiling point method and the ice water method.  I prefer the ice water method for several reasons.  One, it's safer.  You don't have to hold your hand over a boiling kettle of water and then adjust the unit.  Two, it's easy.  All you need is a glass or ceramic cup, some water and some ice.  Three, you don't have to worry about difference in boiling temperature due to elevation. 

Just how easy is the ice water method?  Really simple.  Just fill a glass or ceramic cup with ice and fill it up with water.  Put the thermometer into the ice water and let sit for 5-10 minutes or until the dial has stopped moving.  It should read 32F or 0C.  If it does not, make an adjustment by pushing the button on the back of a digital thermometer, or by turning the nut at the base of the dial on a bi-metalllic stem.  As you are making your adjustment, make sure to leave the stem of the thermometer in the water otherwise the dial will start to adjust to room temp and you will set the temp incorrectly.  If you have a bi-metallic stem thermometer that does not have an adjustment nut at the bottom, you must buy a new thermometer if it does not read 32F.

So... pull those handy-dandy do-dads out of those junk drawers, calibrate them, and put them to work!  The are the cheapest investment you will make to keep food safe everyday.

June 1, 2011

The Great Mystery of Catering

Lately I have been noticing a lot of establishments and operators who are confused about catering.  Hopefully I can clear things up for readers out there.  Here are the most common questions/misconceptions:

1: Anyone can be a caterer.  Not true.  You need to fit the definition of a caterer in the Missoula City-County Health Code and be appropriately licensed.  The Health Code defines "Catering"  as 'a person who prepares food in a licensed facility, transports it and serves it at private events or public functions'. 

2. I have a license with a 'food service establishment' endorsement; that gives me the ability to cater.  The only license that allows you to cater is a license with a catering endorsement.  If you currently do not have this endorsement and would like to expand your operation, you must apply at the health department. 

3. Why is review required?  Catering means that you will be handling large quantities of food, most likely cooling and reheating, which increases the risk level of your operation.  We need to make sure that things like adequate storage and refrigeration are available, as well as knowledge on higher risk procedures.  Catering also pulls you out of your kitchen and we need to make sure that you have the ability to setup properly outside of your facility.  You must have a way to transport foods in temperature and setup hand wash stations, supply overhead and ground cover, and insure proper cold and hot holding onsite.

4. If I have a catering endorsement, I can do any kind of event.  As per the City-County Health Code, your catering endorsement only applies to events which you have been contracted to do for a set amount of goods and services.  If you are charging by the plate at an event, or if there is no contract in place, your catering license does not cover it and you must get a Temporary Food Service license. 

5) If I only do private events, I do not need to be licensed.  That is not true.  Your intent is for anyone in the public to be able to hire you for any kind of event and therefore it is considered public food service and you must be licensed. 

6) If I work for a licensed kitchen, or have access to a commercial kitchen, I do not need to license as a caterer.  Licensing is more than just verifying that you have a commercial kitchen space from which to work.  Licensing comes down to responsibility and liability.  Whoever is responsible for the food, must have a license.  Working out of someone's kitchen without your own catering license is against the law.

7) If I have a mobile, I can cater.  Again, not necessarily true.  It would depend on your mobile/commissary setup, your refrigeration capacity and how you distribute on site.  In order to work under your mobile license, you must operate as a mobile, in your mobile.  If you set up extra service areas, prep areas, or tents to accommodate the event, you are no longer operating as a mobile.

For those of you who would like to add a catering endorsement to your current license, please contact me about a catering plan review at 258-4755.

May 18, 2011

Chef Mic: The Love/Hate Relationship of Food Safety

When a candy bar melted in the pocket of Dr. Percy Spencer during an experiment, a revolution in food prep began.  Shortly after, the microwave was born.  By the mid-1970s, sales of the illustrious unit outdid that of the tradition gas range, and today, almost every household in the country has one as well as most restaurants. 

While microwaves have earned their place in food preparation, I have to admit that I am a little paranoid of them.  I only trust them to heat my coffee and make my popcorn; however, if one understands their limitations and knows how to use them safely, they can be a valuable tool.  Anyone who has heated a hot pocket in Chef Mic (a lovely name dubbed by a friend of mine in the food service industry) knows exactly what I am talking about.  The meatball on one end is still frozen while the meatball on the other end is temp of the sun.  Due to the way microwaves work, they often heat unevenly leaving "cold spots" that will not reach a high enough temperature to kill dangerous bacteria.  These spots could lead to foodborne illness. 

Take the following precautions to insure safety when you use the microwave:

1) Spread the food evenly on the plate if a solid food. 
2) Cover with plastic wrap with a corner vented.  This will trap heat inside the dish and help get the food to temperature while allowing some steam to escape.
3) Microwave at the appropriate power.  It is recommended that you use decreased or half-power for large quantities, frozen, or thick foods.  This is important because microwaves only heat the outer few inches.  The outside will burn or scorch while the inside does not get to temperature.  A lower power for a longer time allows the outside to heat without decreased quality, and give it time to heat the middle through conduction. 
4) Stir the food and heat again.  Continue to do this step until you feel the food is hot enough to temp.
5) Remove, stir and then temp the food with a sanitized thermometer in several spots.  Temp sections in the middle as well as the inside.  If each section temped is above 165F, let the food sit completely covered for at least two minutes.  This "sit time" allows the temperature distribute throughout the food, and believe it or not, allow the temperature of the food to increase even more!
6) After letting the food sit, temp it again to ensure the food stayed 165F or more, and immediately serve it or move to a hot hold unit.

Keep in mind that microwave safety is very important, especially when cooking meats from a raw state or when reheating potentially hazardous foods.  No matter what meat you are cooking, or item you are reheating, the Montana Food Rules, require licensed food establishments to reach 165F, and we at MCCHD recommend that those at home use this temperature as well.  Never skimp on stirring and rotating, and never miss taking a temperature!  Thermometers are the only way you can be sure you've done it right!

Temperature/Time; Cooling/Reheating
May 9, 2011

BBQ Food Safety

As we gear up for summer we need to keep a few food safety concepts in mind.  Just because the fun increases as we take things outside, it doesn't mean that the risk of food borne illness goes away-- in fact, the possibility of something going wrong increases!  Stick to the following guidelines so that foodborne illness doesn't ruin your summer fun:

1) Keep raw meats separate from ready-to-eat items like fruits, salads, breads, and the veggies you are going to put on your grill creations like the tomatoes and onions.  An easy way to think of it is if the item won't get cooked thoroughly, don't put it next to the raw meat.
2) Pre-prep all of your items in a kitchen before taking them to your favorite campsite or BBQ area.  Potable water and space will be limited at those venues which decreases your ability to wash produce, clean cutting boards and knives, and wash your hands when needed.
3) Cook all meats completely.  Chicken should be 165F and burgers at 155F in their thickest part.  Have a calibrated thermometer with a 0-220F range and know how to use it.  Some thermometers must be inserted 2-3 inches for an accurate reading, a depth which doesn't work well with thin foods like burgers.  Look on your thermometer to see if there is a dimple or mark in the side.  If there is, it must be inserted into the food up to that point.  Make sure you check temps with a clean thermometer!
4) Have a way to wash your hands.  Hand sanitizer is not a good substitute.  Nothing is better than scrubbing with soap and using warm to hot water.  Skipping a hand wash after touching raw meat, or touching an unclean surface can contaminate many meals and lead to illness.  Set up a temporary way to wash your hands.  Get creative!
5) Keep cold foods in a cooler or refrigerator at 41F or lower, no higher than 45F.

For those of you out there who have licensed as a Temporary Food Service, you know that there are additional requirements to those stated above.  Please see our Temporary Food Service Guide for more information.

Temporary Food Service/Outdoor Events; Miscellaneous and Consumer Safety
May 6, 2011

When Is Food Safety Education Required?

As many of you know, Montana is one of the few states that does not require food safety training in order to work in food service; however, training is encouraged and available from a variety of sources.  Sysco, FSA, Montana Restaurant Association, and county offices such as ours have a wide array of training programs depending on your needs.  Check out our food safety education section of the website for links and information on these resources.

While initial training may not be required in the Montana Food Rules, the Missoula City-County Health Code does require it under the following circumstances:

1) When an establishment has been closed by the department;
2) Whenever a third inspection is required and a re-inspection fee has been assessed; or
3) Whenever the department notifies an establishment of their history of non-compliance with two or more critical violations on at least three past inspections.

The training requirement is not intended to be a penalty, but rather a way to get information to operators and clear up any confusion about the regulations.  Operators who have had to provide training under these circumstances have not only done better on their next inspection, but also have found ways of making important changes stick.  In seeing the improvements in their staff and inspections, operators have often sent employees to annual refresher courses. 

If you would like to sign-up for our next food safety class, or would like to inquire about other training options, please call 258-4755.

Food Safety Classes/Education
April 21, 2011

Be The Good 'Egg' at Easter

Yes, Peter Cottontail is currently hopping down the bunny trail.  I however, am hopping up and down on my holiday food safety soap box.  Easter eggs are fun to dye and even more fun to find, but keeping in mind safe temperatures and handling will help keep your holiday fun-filled and illness free.

For egg safety - to stay healthy and avoid foodborne illness — USDA advises:
  • Always buy eggs from a refrigerated case. Choose eggs with clean, uncracked shells.
  • Buy eggs before the "Sell-By" or "EXP" (expiration) date on the carton.
  • Take eggs straight home from the grocery store and refrigerate them right away. Check to be sure your refrigerator is set at 40°F or below. Don't take eggs out of the carton to put them in the refrigerator -- the carton protects them. Keep the eggs in the coldest part of the refrigerator — not on the door.
  • Raw shell eggs in the carton can stay in your refrigerator for three to five weeks from the purchase date. Although the "Sell-By" date might pass during that time, the eggs are still safe to use. (The date is not required by federal law, but some states may require it.)
  • Always wash your hands with warm water and soap before and after handling raw eggs. To avoid cross-contamination, you should also wash forks, knives, spoons and all counters and other surfaces that touch the eggs with hot water and soap.
  • Don't keep raw or cooked eggs out of the refrigerator more than two hours.
  • Egg dishes such as deviled eggs or egg salad should be used within 3 to 4 days.

In addition, MCCHD would like you to keep in mind food safety during Easter egg hunts.  If you hide real eggs that you intend to eat later, only put them in locations that are free from contamination and located away from pets and other animals.  Hide eggs only immediately prior to the hunt, and if you locate some stragglers afterward, throw them away.  We recommend that you split eggs into two batches, one set you color for the hunt and will toss, and the other you will color and refrigerate for eating.  Plastic eggs are also a good substitute for the activity.  Lastly, make sure that you use food-grade dye on any eggs intended for consumption and that eggs are cooked all the way through and promptly cooled.

Miscellaneous and Consumer Safety
April 15, 2011

Choosing a Sanitizer Shouldn't Tax You

Yes, I didn't spare you from a very corny joke about the return of our favorite deadline, but I may be able to save you from the headache of figuring out the pros and cons of the two most common sanitizers.  Phew!  I know... you've all been tormented by that very question... staying up late, your bloodshot eyes darting from the Chlorox bottle to the jar of little blue Quat tablets.  What to use????  What to use!!!!

Well, here's the the long and the short of it so you can get some sleep.  Short version: you may use any of the three approved food service sanitizers at the proper concentrations as listed in the rule.  That means chlorine at 50-100ppm, Quat at 200ppm or iodine at 12.5-25ppm.  You of course must use your test strips to check the concentration.

The long of it... one of the approved sanitizers may be a better choice depending on what you are doing, what kind of facility/menu you have, and what you hope to accomplish. 

Let's start with the good ole standard... chlorine.  I love it.  I use it.  It makes me smile.  I like how simple and affordable it is for people to use, has a short contact time, doesn't leave a residue at approved concentrations, and I love how effective it is against a variety of pathogens that other sanitizers can't knock out.  For instance, chlorine is effective against more gram-negative bacteria such as E. coli and some Salmonella spp. than Quat, and it is also the only CDC endorsed sanitizer for inactivating Norovirus.  Quat has not been shown to be consistently effective against these pathogens, and some studies have even shown that they are able to grow in Quat hand dip solutions at 200ppm.  Now-- I am not saying that Quat is not a good sanitizer.  It definitely has its perks.  It is less harsh on people's skin, does not corrode equipment with repeated use, and is more stable and effective over a wider range of water chemistry factors and temperatures.  Some studies have even shown that Quat is more effective than chlorine against some gram-positive bacteria such as S. aureus-- kind of the flip-side of chlorine.

So what does all that  mean???  Well, for starters don't use either one as a hand dip or substitute for hand washing.  As you just read, chlorine is not as effective against Staph aureus, a pathogen associated with poor handling, and Quat can't knock out Noro and may allow the growth of other pathogens.  Yes... I am on my hand washing soap box again.  There is no substitute!  The other thing it means is that there is not a one size fits all sanitizer.  Some places may use both sanitizers in their facility, alternating which solution they use day-by-day to get the benefits of both, while others may use bleach at the meat prep station and quat in veggie prep or pastry areas.  The choice is up to you, but you must understand the pros and cons of each chemical as well as how to use them effectively.  Failure to use them as the manufacturer directs and in compliance with the food rules can create serious problems.  For instance, it's important to know that chlorine and Quats don't mix and can pose a health threat to staff, and that using too high of a concentration, or not allowing air dry time can lead to chemical contamination of food or damage to surfaces and equipment.   

Therefore, choose wisely grasshopper, and look for more information on sanitizers in upcoming blog and FoodLine articles.

April 8, 2011

TFS Season Approaches!

Even though it doesn't feel like spring, look like spring, or seem like spring will ever get here, TFS season nonetheless approaches.  Yes-- the outdoor events must go on, not snow, sleet, hail, or climate change can stop Missoula from having a good time--- so don't let your lack of a TFS license stop you from dishing delights and doing the same. 

For anyone planning on doing events this summer, now is the time to apply.  The markets are set to kickoff April 30th, so if you are looking to save some money, you need to turn in your application by April 22nd for the $25 fee.  After that, the fee will increase up to $100 the day of the event. 

Also keep in mind the following when serving at events this summer:

* Licenses are specific to an event and location.  Just because you have a TFS license for Out to Lunch does not mean it is good for Downtown Tonight or the Markets.
*Hand wash stations must have hot water for you to operate.  They must also have a spigot that can stay open for the duration of hand washing.
*You must have a commissary kitchen for prep, dishwashing, storage, water supply and wastewater dump.
*Prep is limited onsite at the event.  Choose a menu that is quick 'cook and serve' or that does not require extensive work at the venue.
*You must have overhead and groundcover.
*Quat or chlorine must be available for surfaces and test strips must be available onsite.
*AND... ALL FOOD SAFETY REQUIREMENTS STILL APPLY.  Just because you are at a festive event does not mean that hand washing and temperature control can fall by the wayside.  Wash hands when required; keep hot foods above 135F and cold foods below 41F during transport and service.

If you have any questions about Temporary Food Service events, please contact Jeanna McPherson at or 258-4755.

Temporary Food Service/Outdoor Events
April 1, 2011

No Foolin'-- Failure to Complete Change of Ownership Can Result in Closure

Recently several businesses changed ownership without completing the Change of Ownership review and licensing process.  The operators had to stop service until the process could be completed and a license issued.  As many of you know, licenses are not transferrable to new locations or owners, and any facility upgrades must be completed before a new license may be issued.  This can be a very discouraging experience for any new business owner.  Not only do they need to pay for a new license, but the time it takes to review their application, upgrade their equipment and facility issues, and get the pre-opening inspection can amount to down business days and expenses for which they didn't budget.

As current operators, help out those who are new to the food service industry.  When you go to sell your business, let the new operator know they need to contact the health department, and then let us know of the impending change as outlined in the City-County Health Code.  That way everyone is informed and aware of the effort and time it may take to get a new business going.  If we start with all of the information needed, the process can be seamless and hopefully painless!

Administrative/Licensing; Plan Review/Facility
March 3, 2011

Don't Sniff It-- Date It!

One of the details that often gets missed in a food establishment is date labeling.  It's more than just checking the dates on the milk or the use-by date on the package of cold cuts, but having a system that one can use to monitor how long foods have been in cold holding. 

This is incredibly important in food service.  Why?  Simple-- a type of bacteria called Listeria monocytogenes.  This little critter has the nasty ability to grow fairly well at refrigeration temperatures, which means temperature control is not enough.  The only way you can protect your customers from this sneaky pathogen is to date label all potentially hazardous, ready-to-eat foods (items that need refrigeration for safety and will not be further cooked) with the date that you prep them, or the date that you open their manufacturer's package.  You then need to use this item within seven days of prepping or opening, including that first day.  For example, if you prep or open an item on Wednesday, you must use the item or throw it away by the following Tuesday. 

This may seem like a trivial requirement, or you may think you know how long things sit in your cooler, but date labeling is beyond semantics; it's vital to food safety.  Listeria monocytogenes has the highest death rate of any foodborne pathogen, targeting in particular the highly-susceptible populations such as the elderly, children under 5, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions, and the immunocompromised.  This bacterium can cause all kinds of havoc such as spontaneous abortion, severe gastrointestinal symptoms and even neurological problems that can lead to death and unfortunately it cannot be detected through simple observation.  Yes-- a "sniff test" won't work... only proper date labeling and discard will keep people safe.

So-- if you do not have a date labeling system in your establishment, or if you have a system but are not sticking to it, now's the time to shake the Etch-a-Sketch and figure out how you can make date labeling easy and workable for you and your staff.  Your customer's lives may depend on it!

January 14, 2011

Late Renewals Can Result in Closure!

As all of you in the food industry know, the state sent out renewal forms last year to remind everyone that licenses expired December 31, 2010.  We received word this week that there are still several licenses that have not been renewed.  If this is you, please do so asap because all licenses that have not been renewed by February 28, 2011 will be closed!  That means, you cannot operate and until you go through the relicensing process which may include plan review and upgrades. 

If you have not received your renewal form, or have questions regarding the renewal process, please call Gail Macklin of DPHHS at 406-444-2415.

January 3, 2011

Food Safety Education Survey Results

Last year, I created a food safety education survey asking for feedback on what kind of training should be required in food establishments in Missoula. 

Here are the results thus far:
* All those surveyed felt that Missoula should require food safety education for restaurant employees.
*All surveyed believed that there should be a manager on shift at all times with 8-hours of food safety training.
*While everyone who responded agreed that employees should have food safety training of some kind, their responses varied between 2 and 8 hours of seat time.  The majority of responses indicated that there should be some kind of exam at the end of the course taken.
*Comments cited cost of training as an issue, but expressed its importance regardless of expense.

At this time the survey is still open.  So if any of you would like to let us know what you think, please do so.  I will let all of you know if there will be any changes in the requirements for food safety certification or the services we provide!

Food Safety Classes/Education
December 30, 2010


Many Missoulians have experienced the stomach flu that's been going around lately.  But what many of you may not realize is that the "bug" disrupting everyone's holiday season is probably not a flu at all.  Flus primarily affect your respiratory system, and while stomach upset can occur, it is not common.  When symptoms predominately affect your gastrointestinal system, it is most likely from something you ate or drank-- a foodborne illness; however, Norovirus, a common culprit of the 24-hour stomach flu, is particularly sneaky and resilient.  Not only can you get it it from consuming contaminated foods and beverages, but also contaminated surfaces and others who are sick. 

Here are some pointers on how to stay healthy in the peak of Norovirus season, and things you must keep in mind as a licensed establishment:

1.  The key with Norovirus is hand washing and hygiene.  Norovirus is not a pathogen you can guard yourself and others against by using temperature and time control.  Washing hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds is your best line of defense.  Use paper towels to dry your hands.  Use the same paper towel to turn off the water and, if applicable, to open bathroom doors.  Make sure that you are aware of any contaminated surfaces your hands may touch and wash when needed.  Make sure that all food workers not only wash in the bathroom after using the facilities, but also at the designated hand sink in the kitchen.

2.  Minimize exposure to those with vomiting and diarrhea.  Norovirus is extremely contagious and it doesn't take much to get it. 

3.  If you are sick and work at a food establishment, you cannot work until 48 hours after your symptoms clear.  As mentioned before, Norovirus is highly contagious.  One food worker has the potential to exposure his/her coworkers as well as numerous customers if they work when infected.  Think of how a Norovirus outbreak can affect your customers and business.  One short-handed shift is better than taking the risk.

4.  If you have a situation where you think your establishment may have been affected by Norovirus, call the Health Department for assistance.  There are ways to clean and sanitize to reset for business, and specific areas we can help you concentrate on.  It is also important to contact us because not all cleaning chemicals will be affective against it.  You don't want all of your hard efforts to go to waste.  For instance, the Quat-based sanitizers many of you use are not recognized as being effective, and the concentrations of bleach in your sani buckets is no where near strong enough to do any good.  Please let us help you!  This is what we are here for!

5.  The illness is what we call "self-limiting" meaning that the illness should resolve on its own without treatment.  Since this is a virus, antibiotics will not help, but if concerned about how it may affect you, please consult a health care professional, especially if you are considered to be highly susceptible.

Foodborne Pathogens
December 20, 2010

Inspection Stats for 2010

Some of you may have already seen the electronic version of FoodLine that discusses the breakdown of inspection stats from January 1, 2010 and November 24, 2010.  For those of you who haven't and would like the Cliff's Notes version, this blog's for you!

Routine Inspections:
Average number of violations: 2.7
Average number of critical violations: 1.5
Number of routine inspections: 527

Follow-up Inspections:
Average number of violations: 3.5
Average number of critical violations: 2.0
Number of follow-up inspections: 84

Complaint Inspections:
Average number of violations: 4.6
Average number of critical violations: 3.6
Number of complaint inspections: 10

What this means:
1. Most places do a good job and do not require a follow-up inspection.
2. While not all complaints necessitate an inspection, those that do have a higher number of critical and non-critical violations.  This means that if the public is interested enough to call, there is most likely a valid concern. 

I must comment on the anomaly in the follow-up inspection data.  One would expect the numbers to decrease from routine to follow-up, but instead, the averages are higher.  This doesn't mean that operators do not improve over time.  I can honestly say that establishments do make corrections and want to do a better job with each inspection.  In fact, MCCHD spent 61 hours in the classroom since October 2009, 45 of which were privately commissioned by concerned operators.  The reason for the increase is simple: the smaller number of inspections, populated entirely by establishments with a higher number of violations to start with, skews the mean.  If one looks at each establishment individually, it's easy to see progress over time.

The Top Three Non-Critical Violations:
1. Inadequate sanitizer concentration
2. Hand sinks not adequately Supplied
3. Premises clean and maintained.

The Top Three Critical Violations:
1. Inadequate hand washing
2. Inadequate temperature control
3. Cross-contamination

For more information, see our article in the Winter 2010 Edition of FoodLine!

Miscellaneous/Consumer Safety
November 29, 2010

What Do You Want, Man? Simplifying the Pre-opening Inspection

It seems that one of the most confusing things with plan review is the pre-opening inspection.  People make it through the application process, answering the questions about storage and preparation techniques, and then get very befuddled when it gets to this last step. Well, here I am debunking another myth about plan review...

So to throw out the line so often uttered in frustration- What do you want, man?  Believe it or not-- I want something that is really simple: be set up as if you were going to serve your first customer the moment I walk out the door.

What does that mean? 

1. Have you equipment on, working and at temperature.
2. Have thermometers in all of your freezers and refrigerators.
3. Have all of your surfaces finished.  There shouldn't be any gaps or openings around plumbing and conduit.  If you are missing sections of your walls and ceilings, you are not ready.
4. Have water in the inserts of your cold table or steam table where you would normally put the food.  It needs to be in there long enough to reflect the unit's ability to hold temperature.
5. Have your dishwasher on and operational.
6. Have sanitizer set up at the correct concentration with the appropriate test strips.
7. Have hot and cold running water at all fixtures.
8. You must be in compliance with all other authorities such as the building department.
9. All construction equipment should be offsite and all surfaces cleaned and sanitized. There should be no construction debris on any surfaces.

If you are wondering if something is necessary at the pre-opening inspection, or if the conditions you have are appropriate, ask yourself if you would serve food with your restaurant in that state.  If it is still confusing, give your reviewer a call, or refer to our pre-opening checklist.

Plan Review/Facility
November 19, 2010

Holiday Food Safety

It's that time of year again where the cranberry dressing tops the family meal and the meal is followed by the unbuttoning of pants and never ending football games.  While the table maybe surrounded by family and friends, it's important to follow some basic food safety to ensure that you are not welcoming a side of foodborne illness to your feast.

Throughout the process, from the moment you put the turkey into the cart to time the meal hits the table, you need to think separation.  Keep the raw meats in their own section of the cart, ask that the meats get bagged separately from the ready-to-eat items, and store all raw products on the bottom of the refrigerator.  Use separate cutting boards and surfaces when working with raw meats and wash your hands thoroughly with warm to hot water and soap after handling them.  Sanitize countertops and food preparation surfaces after use and allow the solution to evaporate from the surface before further use.

Getting a frozen turkey or roast for the holidays?  Keep in mind that it takes time to thaw a large item in the refrigerator.  Plan one day of thaw time for every five pounds.  Store on the bottom of the refrigerator and make sure the meat is thoroughly thawed before cooking.  It will be difficult to reach safe cooking temperatures if the middle of the bird, or the roast is still frozen solid.

Quick Prep--
It's easy to get ahead of ourselves, especially when there is so much to do, but leaving food out too long during the prep process doesn't lead to efficiency, but illness.  Keep potentially hazardous foods, or foods which require temperature control for safety, in the refrigerator, oven or on the stove top as much as possible to maintain cold foods below 41F and hot foods above 135F.  Only get out the food you can manage at one time and put cold prepped food back into the refrigerator as quickly as possible.  Leave hot foods in the oven until you are ready serve and do not rely on buffet warmers or crock pots to heat items to temperature. 

Cooking Temperatures--
Yes-- there are a lot of temperatures to remember when thinking about safe cooking, but if you are looking to make things easy and safe, the one to remember is 165F.  Anything cooked to that temperature can be considered safe.  This is especially crucial with poultry and stuffed meats.  They must reach 165F in the thickest part.  Make sure you do not hit bone when taking temperatures and that the stuffing inside of the meat reaches 165F in all sections as well.  It is recommended that you cook the stuffing separate for safety.

Do not leave foods sitting out on the table or buffet for longer than four hours, starting from the time the food leaves the oven, stove or fridge; the best practice is two hours.  Chafing dishes, while they do a great job of holding the food warm to taste, do not do a great job of holding it hot for safety.  If you refill a tray for service, do not add the new food to the old.   Encourage the use of utensils and, while keeping the food contact portion of the utensil in the food is great, keeping the handle out of the food is also important.

If you have any-- ha!  When you have leftovers, making sure you handle them correctly is key.  Make sure that foods are placed shallowly in dishes and left vented until fully cooled.  If you have large amounts of something left, use several containers placing the food in them no deeper than 2 inches, or use you kitchen sink to make a cold water bath.  When tapping into your luscious leftovers, reheat them fully to 165F and be cautious of your microwave's uneven heating.

Have a safe and happy holiday season.

Miscellaneous/Consumer Safety
November 8, 2010

Smooth, Cleanable, Durable... What?? Demystifying Facility Speak

Being the plan review coordinator for Missoula County Health, I catch myself saying things to potential applicants like "all food prep sinks must be air-gapped to waste," "any device producing grease-laden vapors must have a hood with fire suppression" and my favorite-- "all surfaces must be smooth, cleanable, durable and non-absorbent" without much thought.  After the applicant looks at me like they are overwhelmed and ready to run, I realize that I often use 'regulation speak' that may not make sense to others.  That being said, I would like to take a moment to break down some of the facility mantras we live by at the health department.

Let's start with my favorite-- smooth, cleanable, durable and non-absorbent.  This means your surfaces are easy to clean, will hold up to normal use, and repel water, food and chemicals.  Often people meet this requirement using things like FRP on their walls, non-absorbent ceiling tiles, vinyl coving and tile floors, and stainless steel or Formica countertops.  Surfaces are very important in food establishment as anyone in the industry knows.  Your surfaces get subjected to an enormous amount of wear and moisture.  While paint may seem like a cheaper solution at the beginning, it will cost you in the long run when a wall turns into a sponge and rots away, or your backsplash starts growing mold.  Improperly sealed cement floors are also cleanability nightmares.  The surface will absorb and hold onto food particles, essentially making it a part of the building.  Not only is it impossible to clean, but it can attract pests and harbor pathogens.  As you can see, the requirement is there for a reason and not just because it's fun to say and has a heck of a rhythm.  We want your facility to hold up and support your operation and make cleaning and maintenance the easiest it can be.

Air-gapping seems to be another area of confusion. All it means is that waste drains indirectly to the sewer and not carried away in a continuous pipe.  Most often the drain pipe is cut above a floor sink or hub drain.  This indirect connection prevents sewage from backing up into your ice machine, ice bins, beverage dispensers, dipper wells, food prep sinks, three-compartment sinks and any other receptacle for consumables or food prep equipment.

As for grease-laden vapors... think fat, think of all the tasty foods that will clog your arteries and send you in for a triple by-pass.  Burgers, fries, doughnuts, chicken wings... your mouth watering?  Mine sure is.  Ahem!  Back on point... processes that cook foods in oils, or cooking foods that already contain a large amount of fats need fire-suppression.  The reasoning behind this is simple: the containment of grease fires.

I hope this blurb straightens out some of the confusion surrounding our facility speak and explains the reasons why we live by the mantras we do. 

If you have any questions about facility requirements, or the reasons behind them, please contact me at 258-4755 or  

Plan Review/Facility

October 26, 2010

To Close or Not to Close, That Is The Question...

In many of my blog entries, I expound upon the many dos and don'ts in a food establishment, but what happens if misfortune should befall your blessed food temple at no fault of your own?  I'm talking about things like your water heater failing, water or power disruption, or sewage backup.  Well-- for starters, assess the extent of the problem and call your friendly neighborhood health inspector.  This is for two reasons.  For one, you are required by the Montana Administrative Rule 37.110.206(7) to call the local health authority and report the emergency; and two, and in my opinion the more important reason of the two, to get advice on how to keep your business and customers safe.

In many of the above events, you may be required to close, but there are circumstances where you may be able to stay open by modifying your operation.  For instance, if you have a limited water supply, or are unable to provide enough hot water for hand washing and dish washing, you may be able to work with your inspector to provide it by some other means.  If a feasible solution cannot be found however, you will have to cease service until the problem is remedied.  This shouldn’t be a surprise to any operator, as the importance of a potable water supply, both hot and cold is quite obvious when one thinks about the role water plays in your daily prep activities. 

In the case of a power disruption, you will most likely need to close.  For one, you will have no power to your cooking and holding equipment, making food preparation difficult, but think about the other effects.  Opening and closing the refrigerators and freezers deplete the cold air inside putting the foods inside at risk for temperature abuse, and again, your hot water supply will be affected. 

In the case of sewage backup, closure is a certainty.  Sewage carries many contaminants into the food facility that have the potential to cause disease.  In any case, the health department can best advise you on what to do—how to decontaminate the facility and what things to discard.

For more information on emergencies in food establishments, see our Emergency Preparedness resources.

Emergency Preparedness

October 1, 2010

Despite What Your Mother Told You, Don't Spread The Love

Anyone wanna venture a guess at the number one violation found by Missoula City-County Health? 
             *insert Jeopardy music here*
.... for those of you who answered "keeping towels in sanitizer at the correct concentration" you take the cake... served, of course, on a properly sanitized plate. 

Yes, the most frequent violation found by inspectors is either improper sanitizer concentration or not keeping towels in sanitizer buckets.  Why is this a problem?  Shouldn't we be excited that folks want to keep a towel at the ready so they can constantly clean?  Well, yes, we are thrilled to see people wanting to keep things clean, but we don't want to see good efforts go to waste.  Sanitizer concentration does not stay stable, whether in the bucket or on the towel.  When towels are left out of sanitizer, the chemical dissipates from the cloth, leaving behind food particles at room temperature, with plenty of moisture, a decent pH and... time.  Anyone who has taken a food safety course through ServSafe or our department knows that those are ripe ingredients for bacterial growth.  By leaving the towel out at these optimum conditions, you've essentially created a petri dish of rich medium.  Then every time you wipe a surface with it, all you are doing is spreading the love.  The same thing happens when you let the sanitizer dip too low in your bucket.  The conditions are ripe for bacterial growth without enough chemical to kill them.  For a nice visual effect, think of a weak sani bucket as a vat of bacterial soup.

So-- what's the take home message?  Keep the towels in sanitizer when not in use, and keep your sanitizer at the correct concentration.  Do not use towels that have been sitting out of sanitizer, hanging from our belts or aprons  to clean off utensils and our hands.  While towels can be a great way to 'break the cycle' in the kitchen, they can also be a vehicle of cross-contamination when improperly used.

Cleaning and Sanitizing

September 27, 2010

Change in License Renewals

With only a few months left in 2010, license renewal time is almost here.  The state would like people to be aware of the following:

1) There will be no grace period this year.  If you do not renew your license by December 31, 2010, a $25 late fee will be assessed.  The only exception to this policy will be if the late payment is due to an error on the part of the state.

2) If you do not receive your renewal form by the end of November, contact the state.

3) If you have changed your mailing address, please contact the state to ensure on time license renewal. 

If you have any questions regarding licensing or renewals, please contact

September 16, 2010

Once Upon a Missed Hand Wash-- Wash After Handling Dirty Dishes

I have been getting a lot of questions on a particular subject lately: hand washing after bussing or handling dirty dishes... is it really required?  The answer is 'Yes, Virginia... you must wash after busing'.  At this point, the operator grimaces and the employees usually groan.  And you know what... I get it.  Really I do.  I worked in food service during college and realize that sometimes it is really difficult to get in all the hand washes you need to or put that sanitizer towel back in that bucket after use, but it is really important that you do.

Why?  Let's think about it a bit.  While you are required to show up to work illness-free, not everyone coming into your restaurant will be in the same healthy state.  They wipe their hands and mouths on their napkins, and when they drink, saliva naturally gets onto the cup rim and into the beverage.  What you are touching could have pathogens that you could pass on to others or yourself!

Okay... pop the popcorn kids and get comfy-- it's gross story time...

Once upon a time in Billings, a little server cleared a table.  Since she wanted to be super efficient, she gathered all the glasses together, stuck her fingers down inside of them and carried them back to the kitchen.  She dropped them on the dirty side of the dishwasher and then started to head back to finish clearing the table.  On her way, she saw a customer's order waiting on the pass through.  She snagged a fry off the plate and tossed it into her mouth.  Then she finished clearing the table.  At this point, the wonderful fairy godfather, FSA rep Mike Callaghan (the source for this story), flagged the server over and showed her one of the glasses she'd carried back to the kitchen.  The girl gasped-- on the rim was blood and pus from a customer's cold sore.  She looked at her hand, the same hand that had just tossed a fry into her mouth, and sure enough, the fabulous lip leakage was on her digits too...... ewww.

I think traditionally I am supposed to insert that she lived happily ever after, but really, I think it's more accurate to say she washed her hands religiously from that point on.

I think the above story illustrates very well what can be present on dirty dishes, but keep in mind that pathogens cannot be seen.  Contamination does not have to be visible to be a problem.  Wash your hands after clearing tables and between handling dirty dishes going into the dishwasher and the clean ones coming out. 

Hand Washing/Handling/Hygiene
September 9, 2010

Snails Are Fish Too...

During a recent food safety class, I had one of the attendees ask a question I couldn't answer: On what refrigerator shelf would I store escargot?  Instantly, my mouth closed and I began to get the feeling that I had missed the memo and was somehow in the middle of an episode of "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader."  Yes-- I was stumped, rendered speechless; me... the ever talkative one.   AH! I had no idea.  Not like snails are a hot item here in Missoula, but nonetheless... I should know!  So what did I do?  What every good little food nerd should... got online, then contacted the USDA, then contacted the regional outpost of the FDA who then forwarded me to the district FDA rep.  Finally, the fabulous Brad Tufto came through like Alanis in Dogma-- snails are fish too, he said, at least they are according  to the 2009 FDA Food Code.

So what does this mean?  Well, even though we do not think of snails as we do tuna, the Food Code somehow does.  That means we must keep snails with the fish and shellfish in the cooler, above all other raw products but below all ready-to-eat items.  They must be cooked to at least 145F before service and all of the usual hot and cold holding requirements must be followed.  Lastly, while shell tags and freeze kill paperwork do not accompany these slimy little buggers like their fish and shellfish counterparts, you do have to make sure that you get the devils from a reputable snail dealer.  Yes... no lemons... and no, I'm not meaning the fruit.

Cross-Contamination; Sources/Recalls; Temperature/Time
September 3, 2010

Gloving 101: How Do I Use Gloves?

I would say this (see above) is one of the most frequently asked questions during an inspection or a food class... aside from 'why can't I use hand sanitizer in place of hand washing' and 'why won't this chili cool in this big ole' plastic bucket'.  And trust me, gloves tend to generate more questions than answers. 

Let's talk about glove use in general.  They are a barrier-- at least that is the intention.  They are not a sanitizing surface and they definitely are not going to solve all handling concerns, but they do have their place in a food service establishment.  That being said-- do not go and throw out all of your gloves because I just said they don't solve everything.  When used properly, they can be a great asset, but, yes, when used incorrectly, they can sometimes cause more problems than they solve.

So here's the break down:
1) In Missoula County, there must be a barrier in place when handling ready-to-eat foods.  Many establishments choose gloves.  They do not need to be worn with raw foods or foods that will be cooked to a kill temp prior to service.
2) Glove use must be confined to food preparation and careful attention paid to the kinds of foods and surfaces they handle in the process.  For instance, do not prep raw product and then shift to prepping ready-to-eat items without a glove change.  Gloves can be vehicles of cross-contamination.  If you touch a food that isn't ready-to-eat, or touch a surface you wouldn't consider clean enough to eat from, you should change gloves.
3) Gloves are not needed to sweep the floor or take out the garbage!  Yeah, it seems commonsense, but it had to be said.  Let's not go there.
4) Gloves are not a substitute for hand washing.
5) Gloves cannot be reused. Yep, throw them out when you are done.  Don't pile the dirty ones on the counter, toss them in the back of the pastry bin, or daintily slip them off in the hopes it will make them easier to slip back on.
6) Hands must be washed prior to gloving and between glove changes.  Why?  Easy.  Think about the way you pull gloves out of the box.  You have to touch the food contact portion.  Anything that is on your hands gets on the gloves and thus on the food defeating the point of gloving.  And what's on your hands?  Lots of fun stuff from the gooey residue that builds up between your hand and the glove, to any kind of contaminants from other prep activities or yes--  the lovely money you just took from the last customer. 

So-- that's the crash course in gloving.  Yes there are many things to consider and yes, to use gloves properly it takes a lot of hand washing.  Keep in mind that the City-County Health Code does not require gloves, just a barrier.  If you can use utensils or tongs in place of them, it may streamline your process.  And, if you simply cannot prepare a certain kind of food with gloves or other barrier, we do allow for establishments to apply for a glove exemption.  If you are one who is interested in this option, please contact your inspector.

Hand washing/Handling/Hygiene

August 23, 2010

It's Not Just About The Grade

Okay, I will be the first to admit-- I was one of those kids.  I loved the first day of school, thought recess was a waste of time, purred over the smell of a freshly sharpened pencil and yes-- loved report card time.  I was doped over the very idea of getting a grade, but now, being in a position where people ask me all the time to grade them, my attitude has changed.  I have come to realize that grades have a time and place.  While letter grades make complete sense with math and science, using them in food establishments doesn't work with our particular inspection approach.  Why?  Simple-- a grade is unable to fully capture a risk-based inspection. 

When we inspect an establishment here in Missoula, we look at the "Big Five" -- Time and Temperature Abuse, Poor Hygiene and Handling, Cross-Contamination, Unsafe Sources and Improper Cleaning and Sanitizing.  Deficiencies in these areas are most likely to cause food borne illness.  During the inspection, we not only discuss problems in these areas with the operator, we also take into account the nature of the violation, or how widespread and serious it is.  There are degrees to critical violations.  It's not the number of violations but the extent in which things are out compliance and the potential for illness.  Capturing this in a number would be unfair and, under the former scoring system, could be misleading.  For instance, an establishment could have all of their food out of temperature and still get an "A", throw in missed hand washes after the bathroom and raw meat handling and they could still get a "B".  These are the ingredients for a major outbreak, yet an establishment with one hot and one cold item out of temperature and missed hand washes after glove changes would get the same grades respectively, even though they have less illness potential.  Needless to say, we prefer not to assign as distracting letter grade and stick with our descriptive approach.  This way, operators can focus on food safety concerns rather than the grade and we can keep establishments safer with a better working relationship.

So-- consider us a resource.  We do not work off of checklists, nor do we handout tickets and score cards.  Our goal is to help establishments operate in their safest capacity, not help them increase their food GPA.  However.... we do hold operator-inspector conferences in the form of quarterly food classes :) -- cookies not included and parents need not attend!

August 11, 2010

Gloves: Best When Used Properly

Recently, I took a trip to the state of Washington to visit family.  During the trip, I had a chance to visit a variety of food and beverage purveyors... everything from Subway and fine seafood restaurants, to some fabulous breweries and wineries... guess which ones were my favorite :).    I must admit, that while my body was on vacation, my eyes and inspector senses were still quite honed, and with one exception, I was quite impressed with what I saw.  In almost every establishment waitstaff did a fabulous job of washing hands between busing tables and carrying out plates of food.  Waitresses had their hair nicely restrained and staff members did a great job of keeping patio doors closed to keep pests out.  All the menus I perused had warnings about the consumption of undercooked foods, and I was quite impressed with the care paid to family member of mine who has severe food allergies.  There you go... bravo Washington.  And yes, way to go P.F. Chang's on the lovely Great Wall of Chocolate Cake... delectable... all 2200 calories of it.

I was however, quite perturbed by some practices I observed at an upscale restaurant I patronized my last night. For one, the glasses that appeared unused were utilized in the next place setting, the cooking staff missed hand washes between glove changes, allergens were not fully disclosed and... the most disturbing thing as far as I was concerned, was the nasty pair of gloves worn by the guy who brought out my food.  Yes, they were sweaty to the point of being translucent-- obviously not changed in a while, and so covered in grease he could hardly hold on to the plates.  For starters, waiters do not need to wear gloves.  Although Washington does have different regulations, I never observed this practice at any other establishment, and with my exposure to the food safety biz I cannot see how that would be required unless the waiter couldn't avoid touching the food-- like sans plate.  In fact, food preparers do not even need to wear gloves unless they have to directly handle ready-to-eat food.  That being said, let's discuss why "global glove use", or wearing gloves for every task, is a problem in food service.  An obvious concern is that gloves are less likely to get changed when needed.  Gloves worn to handle everything from food to the garbage can act as vectors for contamination.  Knowing when to wear gloves, when to wash hands and how to keep gloves to select tasks, will minimize the chances for cross-contamination from poor handling. 

So-- kudos to the majority of the establishments I visited, and as for you Missoulians, please keep best practices in mind.  Not only will it help prevent food borne illness, but you never know when a health inspector is watching!

Hand washing/Hygiene
July 28, 2010

Food Safety Modernization Act: Suppliers Should Earn Our Trust

We in the United States take our food supply for granted.  When we sit down to dinner, whether at home or in a restaurant, we automatically assume that the food in front of us is safe.  We trust that the produce, meats, spices and other ingredients were produced in accordance with all laws and regulations, and believe that any facility involved maintains sanitary conditions and practices.  Yet recent estimates say that 112-115 million people are sickened each year in the United States with foodborne illness, and according to Eric Schlosser's article, "Unsafe at Any Meal", the annual deaths from foodborne illness is "roughly the same as the number of Americans who've been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003".  

Did that sit you a little further back in your seat?  It should have.

But don't think these startling statistics are going unnoticed.  The Food Safety Modernization Act, was recommended to the Senate by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last November.  The act hopes to improve the US food supply both internally and externally, targeting not only our facilities here in the US, our recall policies, and ability to do tracebacks, but also tightens requirements for foreign suppliers.  These improvements may mean tighter regulations, but a safer food supply.  All I need to say is 'peanut butter' to drive that point home within our own borders, and the latter concern, regarding foreign produced food, is now more important than ever since China, a country associated with lead and melamine tainted food, has now become one of our top foreign suppliers. 

As the amount of food that spills over our borders continues to climb along with the number of illnesses within our own country, we really need stop and take focus.  Foodborne illness affects all of us, but can be deadly to the elderly, the very young and the infirm.  We need to take steps to ensure the apple juice our little ones drink did not come from a tainted supply from China, or the peanut butter gramma puts on her toast is not riddled with Salmonella.  I am not saying we should loose faith in our food supply, I am saying we need to become better educated consumers and ask for suppliers to earn our trust.  Supporting legislation like the Food Safety Modernization Act and learning where your food really comes from is the first step in making that happen. 

July 26, 2010

Required Food Safety Education???

I am often stunned by the number of inquiries I get regarding Montana's food safety education requirements.  Every week I get phone calls from folks asking what kind of Food Handler Certification they need in order to open or work in a restaurant here in Missoula County.  After I politely explain that no training is required, I brace myself for the inevitable... Are you serious?  And yes... I am.

While most states around the country have revamped their state or local requirements to include food safety training, Montana has yet to make that step, and many times, I find myself asking why we haven't joined the fold.  This is one area where being like everyone else would actually be a good thing.

My desire to be a lemming for once in my life was further emphasized at the 2010 Food Safety Education Conference in Atlanta, where I listened as other jurisdictions from across the country discussed their education programs.  I looked at studies that examined the relationship between Certified Kitchen Managers, critical violations and outbreaks, and discussed trends seen in kitchens with other food safety trainers.  One study in particular, "Certified Kitchen Managers: Do They Improve Restaurant Inspection Outcomes" (Cates, et al., 2008), noted the positive affect that trained staff had on the number of glove use and hand washing violations.  And while some relationships in the study require further exploration, the trends observed overall echoed what I observe everyday while doing inspections.  The places with the highest number of critical violations are not only full service restaurants with the highest risk menu, but most often, they have a manager who cannot provide needed training and oversight.  The establishments that do the best job with handling, basic cleaning and sanitizing have certified managers and the restaurants that seek training after a rocky inspection are the most improved. 

I know this all seems very common sense-- having well trained and responsible leaders and team members equals success.  But like anything, training costs time and money and often, people do not know that they-- well, don't know...  anyway. 

So here's my plug, let's get everyone in the know!  If we get the information out there we will be helping ourselves, our businesses and the public.  Gallatin County has already implemented mandatory training for all managers and I think it would be awesome if Missoula took the same initiative!

What do you think Missoula?

Please take the survey below and give MCCHD valuable feedback.

Food Safety Classes and Education
July 19, 2010

Cool Before Sealing

What?  I know.  Catchy title.  But what does it mean?
Well, simply put, if you heat food up, put it into a container and place it into the fridge for later use, you must ensure that it cools properly-- and chances are if you seal it in a plastic bucket or glass jar, it's not going to.  I have noticed a lot of products lately, especially at Temporary Food Service booths, that have been improperly cooled and sealed prior to the event-- baked beans heated in advance to mix in the spices, salsa products that were heated prior to packaging without a controlled acidified process and meat sauces made by the gallon.  All of these products need to be properly cooled before sealing them in their plastic buckets and mason jars and taken to events. 

Why?  Easy. We all know that food cannot be left in the Temperature Danger Zone or TDZ (41F to 135F) for very long.  Reason being, bacteria that can cause foodborne illness double every twenty minutes in that temperature range, and some bacteria, like the ones associated with improper cooling, can even produce toxins.  Since food must pass through the TDZ during cooling there is a risk that it will spend too much time out of temperature.  Most often proper cooling is thwarted by the preparer when they seal heated foods in glass and plastic containers, preventing the product from releasing heat.  What they need to do is help the product breathe and release heat. 

So how we do that?

1) Use shallow dishes like hotel pans or sheets pans to cool food.  Only place food in the dish 1-2" deep, put into the refrigerator and stir.
2) Use ice baths.  Fill a prep sink with cool water and ice, set the kettle or dish into the sink, making sure the ice/water mixture does not spill over the edge and into the food.  Stir often.
3) Put ice into the food product to assist cooling.
4) Use smaller portion sizes.  The more surface area to volume ratio you have, the better off you are.  It's much easier to cool a bowl of soup than the whole kettle!
5) Take temperatures and stir often to make sure you hit the required cooling parameters and never combine foods into large or sealed containers until they are completely and properly cooled.

Cooling Parameters:
One Step Method--
From 135F to 41F within four hours.

Two Step Method--
From 135F to 70F within two hours.  From 70F to 41F four hours after that.

Cooling/Reheating; Temporary and Outdoor Events
July 16, 2010

Death by Salsa??? 

You just drop your chip?  Yep, I bet you did.  I had the same response after reading an article forwarded to me by one of my fellow Foodies off MSNBC called "Guacamole, salsa linked to food poisoning".  As my eyes drifted down the article, grabbing each tasty, and poisonous little statistic, eating, my favorite past time aside from writing, rooting for the Red Sox and Mets and, of course, food inspections, started to sound like wasn't such a great idea.  Yep, as my mind chewed on the words "nearly 1 out of 25 foodborne illness outbreaks (are) caused by tainted dips", my happy hippocampus instantly beamed back to my favorite Mexican place by my apartment in New York City.  Yes, the place was a total dive, no self-respecting health inspector should have patronized the place, but it had a great sidewalk patio, good people watching, cheap and tasty drinks and... the salsa was downright amazing.  Thinking back at how many times, my friend and I blamed the 'just-one-more' flavored margarita, or the sushi place down the street for our stomach ailments, I now wonder if it wasn't the cantina salsa.

So... putting my health inspector hat back on and my personal quips aside, it doesn't surprise me at all that salsa can cause foodborne illness.  Everyone has heard of the outbreaks associated with produce in the past few years-- tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, all the fabulous ingredients in America's new favorite condiment, and while we're sucking it up faster than ketchup, we shouldn't be treating it like our favorite bottle of Heinz.  About 30% of the 136 outbreaks associated with salsa between 1984 and 1997 were attributed to Time and Temperature abuse while 18% were caused by norovirus, a virus commonly associated with poor handling and hygiene. 

How do we avoid having our cantina experience ruined by foodborne illness?  Easy.  We must keep fresh salsa refrigerated and in temperature on condiment bars and not leave it out on tables.  It should be prepped quickly and in small manageable batches that can be kept in temperature, and of course, we must be getting all of our produce from reputable sources and washing it well before use.  If we don't, one small abuse can become a big problem. 

While this means we need to be cautious and treat salsa as a potentially hazardous food, it doesn't mean we have to give up our favorite condiment.  So yes, go ahead a pick that chip back up, dredge deeply into that nice cold tomatoey goodness-- and, if no one at your table is looking, double-dip. 

Temperature/Time; Foodborne Illness
July 9, 2010

Hand Washing: Summertime... ANYTIME!

After visiting family and friends over the holiday weekend, a fellow inspector and I were talking about how hand washing seems to fall by the wayside during the summer, especially with kids.  We need to keep in mind that all of our favorite outdoor activities can bring us in contact with recreational waters, animals and unclean surfaces that can harbor pathogens, many of which can be transmitted by food if we contaminate it with unwashed hands.  For instance, the lovely turtles in the ditch can carry Salmonella spp., surfaces can have Norovirus waiting for an opportunity to strike and E. coli can be found in a lot of our outdoor environments.  Yes-- it's not just Aunt Gertrude's potato salad that can cause gastrointestinal distress!

While I realize that hand washing is difficult at many of our favorite summertime venues, you need to make the effort to do so before grabbing that ice cream cone.  Hand washing is the first step in illness prevention, especially before preparing, serving or eating foods, and for those of you who work in a food establishment, being extra vigilant of hand washing and illness prevention is so important-- both inside and outside the restaurant.  You have to stay healthy to work. 

So... while that ice cream cone may hit the spot, wash your hands first, or else those little turtles may not be as cute as you thought.

Hand Washing and Hygiene

July 8, 2010

Be Food Safe This Summer

The fireworks may be over for another year, but we still (fingers crossed) have several more months of summer.  Whether you are grilling for friends, heading to the lake, or doing a Temporary Food Service event, we all know there are a few things we cannot forget.  One, the famous recipe rib sauce.  Two, beverages... of many varieties, and last, but definitely not least, food safety. 

The same food safety risk factors present in our homes and restaurants can be found outdoors, and in many cases, can be even more difficult to control.  Watching time and temperature, eliminating cross-contamination, cooking to the proper temperatures and practicing proper hand washing, cleaning and sanitizing can keep our outdoor events memorable for the right reasons. These concepts apply not only to our restaurant operators but also to folks at home.  They too can cause illness if they do not pay attention to food safety.

Be food safe and watch the following:

1. Make sure food stays cold enough in coolers.  Food must stay below 45F.
2. If you leave food out, have a way to track the time and discard after four hours.  The sun can be fun, but also the enemy when it comes to food safety. 
3. Keep raw meats in separate coolers from ready-to-eat foods. 
4. Cook all burgers and other raw meats thoroughly.  Burgers must hit 155F for safety, and chicken and other poultry 165F.
5. Have a way to wash your hands with soap and warm to hot running water.  Wash after handling raw meats, after using the restroom or participating in an outdoor activity.

Check out our TFS Checklist for Success for more outdoor food safety information.

Have fun and be food safe this summer!

Temporary/Outdoor Events
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