State of Food Safety is Getting Better

A recent survey of chain restaurants uncovered a high level of food safety awareness, but foodservice distributors' attention to the issue could boost alertness to an even higher plateau.

Armed with the survey results, distributor executives and sales reps could now tailor a marketing program that addresses food safety topics, products, training and HACCP principles, confident that the information will fall on receptive ears.

Overall, the survey, conducted by Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, and funded by the Daydots Foundation for Food Safety, Fort Worth, Texas, revealed that by and large operators are adhering to food-safety guidelines and that food safety is top of mind for restaurant owners and managers.

"As a group, the industry is doing pretty good. At least at the corporate level, there is an emphasis on food safety, they're working hard to keep their customers from getting sick," observes Dr. Douglas Nelson, assistant professor with the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management and director for the Arthur Avery Foodservice Research Laboratory of Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, the survey director.

Mike Milliorn, a member of the foundation's board and president and founder of Daydots, says, "The state of food safety in the foodservice industry is good and getting better. The most encouraging thing is that operators are taking food safety seriously."

The e-mail and web-based survey solicited information on food safety practices and procedures from 400 leading chain operators. Nelson explains that food-safety codes vary from state to state. Kitchen practices occasionally match Food and Drug Administration's code, other times they match state codes and sometimes they don't correspond with anything. "We looked at practices that are recommended by corporate to see how closely they were following the code," he adds. The results of the study, which were broken down into five areas - preventing temperature abuse of food; proper storage; preventing cross-contamination; hazard analysis critical control points (HACCP); and the certification of food handlers, surprised both Nelson and Milliorn.

"In very question that the Purdue researchers posed to them, half or better were doing something about food safety or being diligent about it," Milliorn points out.

While most of the respondents said they recommend or require regular use of thermometers in determining whether a product is properly cooked, the responses further showed that the use of digital thermometers is rising.

"This is a good development for a couple of reasons: They stay calibrated better. Most long-stem thermometers have to be calibrated very frequently. Thermocouple thermometers should be calibrated periodically but not as often as bimetallic ones. Thermocouple thermometers can be more accurate," Nelson explains, adding that the digital units are not priced beyond the reach of most foodservice operators.

Nelson sees another advantage with the digital devices-labor savings. With the industry moving toward universal HACCP compliance, operators will be required to maintain accurate records of their procedures. "The long-stem bimetallic thermometers are more labor intensive for doing HACCP whereas the thermocouple thermometers can be put into a data logger so that the readings can be automatically recorded and stored for the HACCP program. If you make it less labor intensive, operators more likely to do it," he says.

The study also found that in labeling products operators primarily record the preparation date, followed by the name of the items and who prepared it. The FDA code recommends a use-by date while state codes actually decide what appears on refrigerated products. Nelson believes that the preparation date label is not as safe as the use-by date because the former practice requires stricter management supervision that would ensure that the staff is actually disposing of expired products in a timely manner.

About 54 percent of the operators were using color-coded cutting boards while the remainder was using one color, Nelson says, clarifying that those operators might have multiple boards, but only in one color. The use of color-coded knives and utensils was not as high. "There is more of a potential for cross-contamination when using the same cutting board for everything. If you're taking care of your cutting boards properly, you can use a single color and avoid cross-contamination. But the problem with that is that some restaurants have a 200 and 300 percent labor turnover and it's difficult to get workers trained and keep them motivated and go after them. It's a lot easier, for a manager, to walk through the kitchen, knowing that there will be no cross-contamination based on the color of the cutting board," Nelson says.

Responses regarding HACCP practices and certification, specifically, demonstrated high food-safety awareness.

"HACCP is coming," Nelson states, though he notes that remnants of an aversion to it remains. Of the respondents, three out of four recommended or required a formal HACCP program. On the downside, while one in four didn't make a recommendation or requirement to follow HACCP, 7 percent of them did say they would not recommend HACCP nor would they follow HACCP. "There are a couple of reasons for this. HACCP is viewed to be very labor intensive and if you're writing down data, it can be, and if you are recording it electronically, it can be viewed as being expensive. Also, the operators may not want to know what is being done in their kitchens. They figure that if they're maintaining a record of their mistakes then they're more liable. That's one thing that HACCP does, it mandates a record. A health inspector can see that you're not maintaining business by looking at your records," Nelson explains.

Nelson was also "rather impressed with the results on the certification question. I didn't think that it would be this high." Nearly eight out of 10 respondents voluntarily recommended or required that their general managers be certified. The number was only slightly less for certifying assistant managers. Respondents also endorsed certification for crew leader (62 percent) and crew members (38 percent). The NRA's ServSafe certification was among four nationally-recognized programs that were preferred by the respondents.

Nelson believes that these surveys help raise food-safety awareness through peer pressure because if a restaurateur sees that 75 percent of his competitors are adhering to HACCP, then he or she could realize his disadvantage. "If everybody is using HACCP successfully, then that could put me at a competitive disadvantage. We're looking into whether HACCP adherence could be a marketable and merchandisable commodity for operators," Nelson says. His team is working with local health inspectors to find out inspection scores, which appear in local newspapers two to four weeks after inspection. "Then having the scores, we can do customer counts on restaurants before and after scores come out," he says.

Nelson's message for distributors is boost awareness by selling safety. "You've got to promote the safety value of your product. People don't do things unless there's something in it for them. Just to make your product safe, is not enough. But distributors should push the value of making it safe to their operator customers. One of the values is that you'll be in business tomorrow. For a restaurant operator who is dirty, his clientele is limited," he notes.

The survey results also demonstrate to distributors that their customers already possess a high level of awareness about food safety. "So if DSRs talk to an operator about food safety or about food safety products, they should get a good reception. Sales reps should educate the operator about additional products or procedures. It makes the DSR look savvy, if he's talking about a topic that they're interested it. They could talk intelligently about a food safety issue and products that address those issues," Milliorn says.

Executives can also participate in the process, Milliorn adds, "by encouraging all DSRs and all employees to take the ServSafe course. Therefore, everybody will understand what the issues are, what the operator's issues are, and how these products that we're shipping about the door are being used. I think that if it's that important to the operators, then distributor executives should pay attention to it more. In fact, executives should take the course as well."

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