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July 2010 Archive

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 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
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 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 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 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!

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Food Safety Classes and Education
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