Food freshness and safety go hand in hand. As many operators are leaning on smaller, local suppliers to shrink the supply chain, it’s still important to ask questions of these companies that can make the difference between receiving produce shortly after it is picked, or many hours later. A recent report from US Foods cited a key question that Michael Navarrette, executive chef at Café Luxembourg in New York, always asks any prospective vendor: Where am I on your delivery route? If produce is sitting on a truck in the heat of summer, it’s vulnerable to the spread of germs that subsequent washing may miss. Knowing how large the window is between the picking of the produce and its arrival at your door can make a difference in your food quality, safety and waste.
Consumers crave farm-fresh produce as the weather warms up – particularly as local, plant-based diets become bigger priorities. But as you race to churn out fresh vegetables on your menu, make sure you’re keeping food safety hazards in mind. As food safety expert and barfblog.com publisher Doug Powell has said, “Fresh produce is the biggest source of foodborne illness in the U.S. and North America, and it has been for at least a decade.” The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that fresh produce has been responsible for 629 outbreaks over the past 10 years, making nearly 20,000 people sick. To limit the spread of illness, make sure you familiarize yourself with your suppliers’ food safety practices and values.
Summer is salad season. But the abundance of leafy greens available means restaurant operators have to be extra vigilant about food safety. Germs found on raw produce cause a large percentage of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. and are a major source of E. coli infections, in particular. Increasingly, indoor farms are popping up around the country to enable year-round growing of greens. As these greens are grown in water instead of soil and also harvested and packaged indoors, they offer a lower-risk alternative to greens grown outdoors. Amid food safety risks related to extreme weather, supply chain vulnerabilities, pathogens and pesticides, does your restaurant have a plan to gradually transition to safer suppliers?
If you’re serving up more raw vegetables right now – and keeping watch on potential food safety problems in the supply chain – you may be more concerned about taking steps to make your produce extra clean and contaminant-free. There are a number of antimicrobial produce washes on the market that promise to kill nearly 100 percent of pathogens, but are they worthwhile? According to the FDA, there isn’t a need for a specific produce wash – rinsing with plain running water and, for firm produce, scrubbing with a brush, is all that’s needed. In fact, it has said that such washes may leave a residue on a piece of produce or change its taste. However, a produce wash may feel like the safer choice if you’re serving foods with a poor safety history, if you anticipate problems related to regions where you source produce, or if you simply serve a lot of dishes containing raw vegetables.
You have likely stepped up your cleaning procedures since the start of COVID-19, but some procedures shouldn’t change. Case in point: Your existing methods for ensuring the safety of food including fruits, vegetables and packaged products. According to the CDC, the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 by eating or handling food and food packages is very low. Further, the CDC advises against wiping down cardboard or plastic packaging with disinfectants meant for hard surfaces, which may contaminate the food itself. After handling packages, it’s most beneficial to simply wash hands with soap and water.
As the weather warms up and we crave – and have access to – more fresh, local produce, be sure to take appropriate food safety precautions with it. Don’t wash whole produce before storing it. In the refrigerator, keep it above and away from raw proteins – and avoid overcrowding it with other produce. Any chopped or peeled fresh produce must be refrigerated within two hours or discarded. When keeping cut produce in the refrigerator for later consumption, store it in airtight containers.
In recent months, E. coli contamination has been responsible for dozens of serious illnesses – and that’s in romaine lettuce alone. Could your menu choices help minimize your chances of purchasing contaminated produce? Every year, the Environmental Working Group releases updated lists of the produce most commonly exposed to pesticides and other chemicals, along with produce that has tested to be the cleanest. Food News reports that these items made this year’s Clean 15 fruits and vegetables: avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, onions, papayas, eggplants, asparagus, kiwis, cabbages, cauliflower, cantaloupes, broccoli, mushrooms and honeydew melons. Can any of these ingredients be substituted for others on your menu?
Does your restaurant buy pre-washed produce? Remember that it still must be washed under running water during preparation. Steritech also advises that bacteria can be transferred from the surface of produce to its flesh when cut, so be sure to make sure your fruit and vegetables are washed thoroughly in running water prior to cutting them.
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.
While eggs, meat, seafood, fermented foods and unpasteurized milk and cheese all carry a high risk of causing food poisoning if not stored and prepared appropriately, nearly half of all cases of food poisoning come from infected produce, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Leafy greens, sprouts and fruit are common carriers of Listeria, Salmonella, E. coli and other pathogens, Medical News Today reports. Help ensure the produce you serve is safe for guests by washing all fruits and vegetables, and refrigerating any chopped or peeled produce within two hours – or within one hour if the temperature of the environment is 90°F or higher. Finally, separate all produce from other raw foods – meats, in particular.