If you’re serving food in new ways – such as keeping items packaged and in a hot-holding area when you didn’t before – double-check your food safety protocols to ensure you’re protecting the foods you have available for easy and safe collection by customers. While keeping foods out of the temperature danger zone is critical, how is your food affected if you keep it out at the proper temperature for many hours at a time? A USDA advisory calls for operators to keep foods at a minimum temperature of 135°F for a maximum of eight hours, or a minimum temperature of 140°F indefinitely to protect food safety. But to maintain both safety and quality, Jonathan Deutsch, Ph.D., professor of Culinary Arts and Food Science at Drexel University, told Restaurant Business that it’s best to limit the hot holding of food to a period of between two and four hours, which may mean replenishing your supply at more regular intervals.
It may be cold outside, but don’t forget to take the proper precautions when cooling foods – particularly if you’re making winter soups or large quantities of other items to be refrigerated or freezed and served later. To keep foods out of the temperature danger zone (between 40°F and 140°F, where bacteria grow most rapidly), you don’t want to leave food unrefrigerated for more than two hours. On the flip side, refrigerating a hot food prematurely can also compromise the cooling of other foods in your refrigerator. To expedite the cooling of foods prior to refrigeration, try storing them in shallow containers – ideally stainless steel, which transfers heat away from foods more quickly; placing the food in an ice-water bath and stirring it frequently; using an ice paddle to distribute cold through a food; or storing it, loosely covered, in cold-holding equipment to help cool the food down.
You may well be freezing more foods lately amid the uncertainty in the food supply chain and in your customer numbers. Take care to thaw these foods carefully – items left on the counter to thaw may seem frozen even when their outer layer is well within the temperature danger zone (between 40 and 140°F). The USDA advises operators to use only three methods for thawing foods: refrigerating, submerging in cold water and microwaving. The latter two methods are fastest but require more vigilance: When submerging an item in cold water, ensure you use a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent contamination and change the water every 30 minutes. When microwaving, cook the item immediately after thawing in case parts of the food have been partially cooked (and may be in the danger zone).
Don’t let hurricane season or other severe weather events compromise food safety at your restaurant. If possible, take steps now to safeguard your facility against weather threats. The USDA advises designating space well off the floor to store non-perishable items that would otherwise be contaminated in the event of a flood. Have appliance thermometers in your refrigerator and freezer to monitor temperatures during power outages. You can also better preserve foods by freezing items in your refrigerator that you won’t need right away, grouping frozen items together to keep them cold longer, and using gel packs, frozen containers of water and dry ice to maintain cold temperatures in your freezer if your power is out for an extended period.
Amid the spread of COVID-19, it’s only natural to be more concerned about the health of other people and whether you or your team could inadvertently be spreading infection. Just make sure that when hiring new staff and monitoring your team’s health, you comply with regulations and understand where existing and new regulations overlap. The National Restaurant Association reports that, for example, while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act rules continue to apply in the current pandemic, they do not prevent you from following the COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention or state and local public health authorities. So during a pandemic, you can ask staff about disabilities or require medical exams of employees who don’t have symptoms, since it is a means of identifying people at higher risk for complications. You may also take a person’s temperature and ask about potential exposure during a person’s travels. Just remember privacy and confidentiality requirements under the ADA and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
If you have invested in systems and sensors to monitor aspects of your restaurant’s food safety protocol, don’t let them give you a false sense of security. The technology is only helpful if it is used to support careful food safety practices already in use. As ComplianceMate advises, make sure you follow up on any inconsistent temperature readings. If your cold-holding equipment has a built-in display that conflicts with the readings from your new temperature sensors, for example, test the temperature with a third sensor to confirm the result. If you automatically trust the built-in reading, you may get an inaccurate result as the in-unit thermostats often fail before the equipment does – and placing trust in the sensors can cause you to overlook potential problems with the new equipment. #foodsafety
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.
Eggs are on the rise. Last year, USDA forecasts indicated that Americans were on track to eat about 279 eggs annually per person – more than they have consumed in about 50 years. Amid the push to provide consumers with satisfying proteins that are not meat, your restaurant may be among the many operations adding eggs to everything from burgers to pizza. In the process, however, make sure you’re taking precautions to prevent Salmonella. The FDA estimates that Salmonella-contaminated eggs cause 79,000 cases of foodborne illness and 30 deaths per year. To help prevent contamination, the FDA advises kitchen workers to wash hands, equipment, utensils and surfaces with hot, soapy water before and after they touch raw eggs and other foods containing them. Cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm. Dishes containing eggs should be cooked to a temperature of 160˚F. Finally, if you prepare recipes that call for raw or undercooked eggs, look for eggs that have been treated to destroy Salmonella through in-shell pasteurization.
Serving seafood this season? Take care to thaw it properly. The FDA advises you thaw any frozen seafood overnight in the refrigerator but if you have limited time, seal it in a plastic bag and immerse it in cold water. Alternatively, you can thaw it in the microwave on the defrost setting. Just make sure you stop the defrosting while the fish is flexible but still icy.
If your dishware and utensils aren’t as clean as they could be, they could sicken a guest (or at least leave them with a negative impression of your operation’s cleanliness). Make sure you maintain and clean your dishwasher to ensure it performs as it should. Ecolab advises to first avoid overcrowding the washer, since overlapping dishes can impede water flow. Then monitor the functioning of the unit by checking your gauges’ minimum temperatures, chemical concentrations and pressure measurements against those shown on the data plate. Clean the unit’s wash arms and jets regularly as they may become clogged with food or sediment buildup. Finally, Ecolab advises regular de-liming of the machine, since just one-quarter inch of lime scale can make a heating element use 39 percent more energy.