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Missoula County Environmental Health: Licensed Establishments

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Temperatures/Time Control

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.

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
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!

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.

Sources/Recalls; Temperature/Time
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
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