By Francine L. Shaw
Memorial Day weekend is the official summer kick-off, with parties, al fresco meals, barbeques and other warm weather celebrations. As you prepare for your busy summer season – hosting guests and holding special summer events – it’s critical to follow proper food safety protocols to keep the foods – and your guests – safer.
With hot summer temperatures, outdoor entertaining, warm weather buffets and other seasonal fiestas, the risks for foodborne illnesses increase significantly. To help prevent foodborne illnesses this summer, follow these tips:
- Train your staff. Make food safety training a priority, as part of employees’ onboarding process. Hold food safety “reminders and refreshers” often throughout the year. Don’t simply teach food safety protocols, but also emphasize why these “rules” are so important. Clearly outline the possible repercussions if employees don’t comply with these food safety procedures (e.g., foodborne illnesses, allergic reactions, norovirus – even death).
- Wash your hands. Make sure that every employee prioritizes hand washing. This is the single most important thing that your team can do to prevent foodborne illnesses, including the highly contagious norovirus. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before handling any food and after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs. Also, wash your hands after using the restroom, using cleaning products, taking out the garbage, touching (germy) cell phones, and touching surfaces that others have touched (such as doorknobs, menus, etc.).
- Cook foods to the required temperatures – ground beef (155?F), pork (145?F), and poultry (165?F). Check temperatures of proteins using a calibrated thermometer. Don’t use the old “it’s cooked when juices run clear” trick. Always check temps to be sure foods are cooked properly.
- Avoid cross contamination. Don’t let raw meat products (such as raw hamburgers) come into contact with ready-to-eat foods, i.e. lettuce, tomato, onions, cheese or hamburger buns. Don’t use the same plates and utensils for raw and cooked meat products. In other words, don’t carry raw meat to the grill on a plate and then place the cooked burgers, steak, chicken or seafood on that same plate without first properly washing it. When placing foods in a cooler, pack raw meats and ready-to-eat foods separately. Remember, ice is a ready to eat food. Don’t consume the ice that was used to keep products cold, as it may be contaminated!
- Don’t let foods sit out for more than two hours. This is especially important when you’re outside on a warm, sunny day. When food sits out in the hot sun for longer than two hours, harmful bacteria multiplies, and the risk for foodborne illness increases. Be mindful of this rule when setting up al fresco parties, buffets, etc.
- Keep hot foods hot (above 135?F). If you’re placing food on a buffet table or anywhere that it will sit for awhile, use chafing dishes, slow cookers, and warming trays to keep food hot.
- Keep cold foods cold (below 41?F). Likewise, be mindful of keeping cold foods (e.g., shrimp cocktail, deviled eggs, potato salad) cold. When setting these foods out on a buffet (especially in an outdoor setting), nest serving dishes in bowls of ice, replacing ice often.
- Clean and sanitize using proper protocols and supplies, like Purell® Foodservice Surface Sanitizer, which will effectively disinfect surfaces in 30 seconds when utilizing appropriate disinfection instructions. This is especially important after handling raw proteins on kitchen surfaces (such as countertops). It’s also critical during and after a norovirus incident or outbreak. Wash and sanitize your cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops after preparing each food item. And regularly clean, disinfect and sanitize all surfaces, down to the smallest nooks and crannies, including tile grout, the cracks between counters and walls, etc. Wash linens and rags often and thoroughly.
- Ensure safer leftovers. Discard any perishable foods that have been left out (in the kitchen, on a buffet, etc.) for two hours or more. This is especially important in warm weather. When refrigerating leftovers, divide the foods into small portions and place into shallow containers to ensure the foods cool quickly and properly. Don’t wait too long to serve or consume your leftovers – they’ll last in the refrigerator or walk-in cooler for a maximum of three or four days.
- Understand that alcohol won’t “kill” bacteria. An important item at summer parties and meals is, of course, the booze. While many people will enjoy a cold beer, glass of wine or frosty margarita during summer celebrations, realize that alcohol won’t “kill” any dangerous bacteria that guests may ingest. Alcohol can’t kill germs (including the highly contagious norovirus), and it can’t prevent illnesses from eating unsafe foods. It’s essential to cook, serve and store food safely to avoid foodborne illness.
- Be aware of food allergies. Make it standard operating procedure to ask all guests if there are any food allergies in their group so you can accommodate their special food requirements accordingly. Keep in mind that pre-made foods (such as marinades, sauces, dressings, and dips) may contain many hidden allergens, including nuts, soy, dairy, wheat and egg. Check the ingredients in prepared foods that get from vendors (e.g., buns, desserts, potato salad, etc.) Desserts, including ice cream, are high risk for nut allergies. Commercial brands of ice cream are typically made on “shared” equipment. Always read the labels, and then read again before serving to a food-allergic person. When in doubt, do without!
- Stock allergy-friendly products for food-allergic guests. You will boost customer loyalty (and joy!) if you stock your kitchen with allergy-friendly products for food-allergic guests. Offer gluten-free breads and pastas. Keep dairy-free milks (such as soy and almond) and non-dairy ice creams on hand. Stock “free from” desserts that are made without the top allergens. Guests with food allergies will be delighted if you can prepare meals that are safe for them to eat.
- Avoid cross contact. Note the difference between cross contact and cross contamination. Anyone can become ill from cross contamination if they eat foods that have touched raw meats, poultry or eggs. Cross contact is dangerous only for food-allergic guests, who may inadvertently ingest their allergens if proper care wasn’t taken during food prep. Ensure that your staff avoids cross-contact. Use separate utensils, equipment and plates for food-allergic guests’ meals. Keep food allergens (e.g., nuts, flour, wheat) separate and covered. Don’t chop nuts on a cutting board and then use the same board to chop vegetables for a salad, which could be dangerous (or even deadly!) for someone with nut allergies.
Summer should be filled with sunny skies, warm weather, dining outside, delicious food, chilled drinks, and quality time with family and friends. Be sure to follow proper food safety protocols to keep everyone safe, healthy and happy this summer – and all throughout the year!
Francine L. Shaw is President/CEO of Savvy Food Safety, Inc. which offers a robust roster of services, including consulting, auditing, expert writing/updating and implementation of HACCP plans, food safety education, food safety inspections, curriculum development, and more. Francine’s diverse background includes spending over 20 years in the food service industry, beginning as an hourly employee and eventually an operating partner. She continued her career as a food safety subject matter expert working in academia as well as private sector, her company has performed thousands of food safety inspections – for both local health departments and the private sector. Francine is a well-respected international speaker, and has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the BBC World Series Radio, Dr. Oz Show, the Huffington Post, iHeartRadio, Food Safety News, Food Management Magazine, EATER, and Food Service Consultants Society International.