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Managing fresh herbs and produce safely

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As diners demand more freshly prepared, vegetable centric offerings, herb sauces like pesto, chimichurri, salsa verde and zhug are proliferating on menus nationwide. Classic basil pesto, with its vibrant green color and pungent combination of fresh basil, crushed garlic and sharp Parmesan, is the hallmark of fresh herb sauces—though variations like cilantro pesto and arugula pesto are growing.

Pestos are unique in that they are served best without cooking. The bright color, tender texture and flavors are lost with a full cook step or in packaged versions that are heat-pasteurized. However, raw or mostly raw preparations of vegetables and produce bring up some concerns, as recent events have put food safety in the public eye again. These events include a multi-state Salmonella epidemic related to cut melon, an E. coli outbreak from chicken pesto sandwiches served by a small restaurant chain and at least five deaths and 200 illnesses nationwide due to a particularly virulent form of E. coli linked to tainted romaine lettuce.

Fruits, herbs and vegetables bring the seasonality, freshness, flavor, and healthy-menu perceptions that today’s consumers demand, but operators need to understand that there are serious food safety risks associated with fresh herbs and produce. In fact, fresh items that are often eaten raw are a major source of foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They contribute significantly to the 48 million reported illnesses per year.

This is especially true when herbs and produce are being handled at the restaurant level. While many fruits and vegetables can become tainted with dangerous bacteria in the field, employees can also introduce pathogens when they prep fresh produce—or do not prep correctly—increasing the level of risk. 

“Ingredients like fresh herbs are a wonderful thing, but they pose operational challenges,” says one food safety expert at a major foodservice organization. “You need to have back-of-the-house staff with comprehensive training and expertise. Assuring food safety by relying on internal controls can provide a false sense of security.”

Items such as fresh cilantro, parsley or basil must be washed thoroughly and sanitized before use, especially when they are not going to be cooked, and that task often falls to a junior employee or someone in a position with high turnover—in short, there’s risk that they may not prep these foods correctly. In addition, even the majority of processed herb products such as pastes may need to be cooked prior to use, which can defeat their purpose. You’ll know this from the prep instructions on pack—if it calls for cooking to 165 degrees, that’s the manufacturer’s way of indicating the product is not ready-to-eat.

Best practices to follow:

  • Train, validate and audit employee hygiene and herb cleaning procedures
  • Wash hands and prep areas before handling herbs and produce
  • Thoroughly wash and sanitize fresh produce before using, even if peeled
  • Log temperatures for food preparation, equipment and storage
  • Consider using prepared, scratch-quality recipe components, particularly ones in which no added cook step is required

The safety benefits of HPP

High pessure processing (HPP) technology represents a significant advantage in the safety of fresh herbs and produce. Preparing sauces, condiments and other flavor systems in-house means scratch quality and freshness, but fresh ingredients such as herbs, onions and other fruits and vegetables may pose a food safety hazard. Using prepared products that have been heat pasteurized saves labor and provides the assurance of the heating kill step, but flavor, color and texture may be compromised.

HPP, on the other hand, is a cold pasteurization technique by which products already sealed in their final packaging are subjected to a high level of isostatic pressure. This deactivates vegetative flora present in foods, such as bacteria, maintaining freshness while extending shelf life and guaranteeing food safety in certain products. Foods that have undergone HPP can be used in both hot and cold applications without the added step of cooking. Not only are they more versatile, but they are also more convenient, and can be used to sidestep the challenges of seasonal availability.

This post is sponsored by Minor’s®

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