As the coronavirus has spread and restaurants have had to transition to a takeout-only model, what are restaurants to do to protect themselves and the customers they serve – and to somehow keep business coming in? Despite the many tech advances that have swept the industry, restaurants – until very recently – have been social places where people are on the front lines. A recent Restaurant Business report, which includes advice from a law firm specializing in employment issues, advises clear communication with employees in several areas: share your plan with them (and make sure it covers employee concerns such as your sick leave policy and your plan of operation during school closures) and provide training to ensure everyone knows what procedures to follow if they develop symptoms of COVID-19 or are diagnosed with it. Day to day, increase your efforts to sanitize door handles and kitchen and bathroom surfaces more often. Some operators are placing hand sanitizer at their building entrances, as well as outside the restroom and at stations in the back of the house. And while delivery was once considered a nice-to-have service, it’s now critical. Even if you don’t currently offer mobile ordering tech, now is the time to adjust your menu and offer a simple takeout menu that can be picked up outside of your establishment or dropped off outside a customer’s door for contactless delivery. Right now food delivery is considered a public service for people who are elderly, vulnerable and isolated, so promote on social media and to neighborhood news groups that you are open and ready to help, and provide your menu and contact information. Finally, encourage people to pick up the phone and call you – it’s old-fashioned but people are missing the social connections that restaurants have long been able to provide. You can provide a valuable way for people maintain those community ties as the industry pulls through this time of uncertainty.
Are dangerous bacteria lurking in your kitchen towels? Prevent the spread of germs by sanitizing and storing towels correctly between uses. The most recent USDA Food Code advises towels to be held between uses in a chemical sanitizer solution in the specified concentration. Ensure the towels and solution are not soiled and don’t contain any food debris. Used towels should be laundered daily in a mechanical washer, a sink used only for washing cloths or a food preparation sink that has been cleaned and sanitized. Refer to the food code for a full list of procedures to keep reusable towels free from contaminants.
While cooking foods to the proper temperature can kill bacteria in many foods, rice requires some extra caution. If it isn’t refrigerated very soon after cooking – within two hours – Bacillus cereus spores can multiply fast and sicken a guest. (Even uncooked rice may contain Bacillus spores that are activated by cooking.) Prevent the rapid growth of bacteria in cooked dried foods like rice, pasta, beans and other legumes by keeping them out of the temperature danger zone (40-140˚F) after they are cooked and discarding leftovers within three days. Keep this in mind when you’re more likely to leave rice or other cooked dried foods out – such as when you’re holding them for integration into other recipes or packaging them as a guest’s leftovers or takeout.
Does your kitchen team understand their responsibility to prevent foodborne illness and when to report to management any symptoms they experience that could be connected to it? As the FDA’s Employee Health and Personal Hygiene Handbook details, it’s important your staff appreciates the relationship between their job and the potential risks of foodborne illness, as well as how their health relates to it. If they experience symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, sore throat accompanied by fever, a diagnosed illness caused by a big-five pathogen or simply exposure to such a pathogen, or an exposed or infected cut or wound on their hands or arms, they need to report their symptoms to a manager immediately. (If their symptoms are from a non-infectious condition, such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel disease, some liver diseases or pregnancy, they can continue to work if they show medical documentation that their symptoms are non-infectious.) Your team should also be aware of how restriction or exclusion from working with food can prevent foodborne illness and how proper hand hygiene and no bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat food can prevent foodborne illness.
Planning on serving turkey at your holiday gatherings? Make sure your kitchen staff doesn’t wash the turkey during preparation. As the Safe Plates Food Safety Information Center reports, washing a turkey in the sink can spread harmful bacteria like Salmonella and Campylobacter up to three feet away. To prevent the spread of bacteria, clean and sanitize any utensils and surfaces used during preparation, wash hands before and after handling raw turkey, and cook it to a temperature of 165˚F.
In the midst of cold and flu season, is your employee health policy equipped to handle illness safely and also keep your business running smoothly? Make sure you have a clear protocol on different health conditions and which actions they require. This chart from Statefoodsafety.com may be helpful to post, though your policy might be more stringent if you serve highly susceptible populations. Set procedures for reporting illness, as well as a back-up plan for staffing when you need substitutions, whether you keep your regular pool of employees on standby in case you need them, or if you’re using services like Jitjatjo to hire substitute workers at the last minute.
In the wake of recent reports that the FDA and CDC knew of three E.coli outbreaks connected to romaine lettuce that infected nearly 300 people and killed six, a number of researchers in the food safety industry have gone on the offensive. The editor of Food Safety News, for one, declared that in articles it prints about the agencies in the coming weeks, it would attach warning language saying “both agencies have shown a reckless disregard for the public’s right to know, and their reliability going forward remains suspect.” Restaurant operators can decide for themselves how much trust to place in the agencies when it comes to their supply chains, but in the meantime, some are taking actions ranging from omitting menu items with poor track records on contamination to relying on product recall coverage to protect their business in the case of an outbreak.
If you offer grab-and-go foods, adhering to food safety procedures can be especially difficult. The food auditor Steritech found a number of common food safety issues in 3,000 recent reviews of fresh and prepared foods at grocery stores. Their lessons can also apply to restaurants offering prepared foods to go. Of the problems Steritech discovered, several stood out: One major issue across the board was unclean food contact surfaces, particularly when businesses offer a wide range of prepared foods that require the use of more utensils, equipment and prep areas. Further, contamination via chemical, physical and/or biological hazards was among the top food safety challenges in all departments except produce. Specifically, allergen contamination was a pressing concern for bakery items (demonstrating the need for clear labeling) and improper storage and placement of raw items was an issue in meat, seafood and deli products. Finally, cold holding was among the top problems for produce, seafood, deli and general grocery items – with the principal issue being the temperature of display cases for pre-cut and prepared foods. Make sure these foods are kept at a temperature of 41 degrees or below to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.
As cold and flu season threatens to impact your staff, make sure you’re minimizing the spread of germs after handwashing. Statefoodsafety.com advises that after washing hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, it’s best to turn off the faucet with a paper towel and then dry hands with either a paper towel or hand dryer. Avoid using a cloth towel, which can contaminate your hands and spread germs.
A food thermometer is the only trustworthy way to determine whether or not food is cooked to a safe temperature. Just make sure to take precautions to prevent cross-contamination when using them. Statefoodsafety.com advises operators to clean and sanitize food thermometers between uses, which can be especially easy to neglect when you are using one thermometer to monitor the temperatures of different foods in quick succession.