A Down-to-Earth Look at a Space-Age Food Safety Program

A Down-to-Earth Look at a Space-Age Food Safety Program

by Susan Dickson

If you're old enough to remember black and white television, you might recall images of the first astronauts blasting off beyond the gravitational pull of Earth and filling your young head with questions about space travel. How did it feel to be weightless in space? How does one eat and sleep while encased in a tiny capsule circling miles above the planet?

The fledgling space program inspired a nation to look to the heavens. Children dreamed of becoming astronauts. They drank "Tang" -- an orange powdery concoction mixed with water and touted to be the breakfast drink of the space program.

But that was not the only aspect of the foodservice industry that got to share in the excitement of the era. The folks at the Pillsbury Company worked with the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) to develop a protocol to ensure that the food eaten by the astronauts was safe. Food poisoning is a miserable experience on terra firma. When it occurs to a space crew on a space mission it could be disastrous.

And, thus, food safety protocol joined the list of advancements that were born from the space program, including a system that we can apply in our kitchens to prevent serving contaminated food to our patrons -- the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) protocol.

In the 1960s, Howard Baumar, then Pillsbury's vice president of science and regulatory affairs, was instrumental in developing the HACCP for the space food program, in concert with NASA, the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force Space Lab. He later applied this procedure within Pillsbury.

HACCP and Your Restaurant

HACCP figures prominently in meat and poultry plants under federal inspection, as a means to reduce the contamination of meat and poultry products with disease-causing (pathogenic) bacteria. After a few well-publicized restaurant food poisoning incidents, HACCP is on the radar of everyone with a stake in food safety. In the restaurant, HACCP can provide owners and managers an effective mind-set to avoid food poisoning and ensure a safe food product is being used.

While you might think that running a restaurant is not nearly as important as sending people into space, consider that according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food poisoning affects 76 million people each year in the United States, killing 5,000 and putting another 325,000 in the hospital. You have a great responsibility to your patrons.

Start with a Clean Slate

One of the best things about being in the startup or growth phase of a business is that you have the chance to do things right from the start. As my teachers would say at the beginning of a new semester, you can start with a "clean slate." This includes developing systems that will influence your food-handling practices. I use the HACCP steps for managing food safety as a foundation for customizing food safety programs for my consulting clients. It's a tough program and one that is used primarily in food processing, but it translates nicely to foodservice applications. Use these steps as a starting point in developing your food safety protocol. The HACCP model puts you in control of food safety from the point that product enters your restaurant until it is served. It also helps your staff understand its role in proper food handling and preparation.

Seven Steps to Food Safety

There are a number of variations of the seven steps of HACCP, but I like the one developed by the U.S. National Food Safety Initiative. The following steps will provide an approach to help you assess and solve critical food safety issues. If nothing else, going through the process before you open will be a valuable team-building exercise, one where you can assess the strengths and weaknesses of your team and address them before showtime.

Let's focus on one example -- a big, juicy hamburger -- and set it through seven steps of food safety analysis under the HACCP to illustrate how this program applies in restaurants. The value of this article is not to give you all the information and training you need to protect your customers from food poisoning, but to give you a mental approach to this task, upon which you can build your food safety program.

Step One: Analyze Hazards and Put
In Place Measures to Minimize Them

What are some potential food safety hazards? Improper storage, preparation and serving all come to mind. A hamburger presents many potential hazards to your guests. In every step of the processing of that hamburger, from the steer grazing on the ranch to your grill, there are food safety land mines that can cause illness to your guests.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot you can do about what happens before the meat is delivered to your restaurant, other than selecting reputable suppliers, who will choose quality producers, processors, and shippers. Think about it; when you shop for your family's groceries, you place a great deal of faith in the people who purchase inventory for the supermarket. Well, your guests place the same faith in you. Have you taken the time to learn where your beef originates; and how it is slaughtered, processed and shipped? Do you know how long the product is out of optimum temperature from the time the beef is slaughtered to the time it reaches your door? For example, most trucks have systems that allow you to track the refrigerated trailer's temperature. I can think of at least one supplier who will refuse shipment if the temperature has been too high during the trip.

You have more control of the product on its trip from your back door to your customer's plate. What could go wrong with a burger on this short but critical journey? The most serious hazard with ground beef is toxins produced by bacteria. Ground beef and other high-protein foods like poultry and dairy products are the foods most commonly involved in food poisoning. They are a veritable petri dish for the growth of bacteria and must be handled properly.

According to the CDC, Escherichia coli (e. coli) O157:H7 is an emerging cause of foodborne illness. An estimated 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths occur in the United States each year. Infection often leads to bloody diarrhea, and occasionally to kidney failure. Most illness has been associated with eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef. In 1993 an outbreak of e. coli at several restaurants in a single fast-food chain caused 500 sicknesses. A total of 160 people ended up in the hospital, and many are still experiencing debilitating effects. Five people died. Because of this and other incidents, most of us in the business make sure we cook all beef to an internal temperature of 155 degrees.

Measures to control this and other resulting foodborne illnesses would include receiving it properly, not letting it sit on the dock or floor where the temperature could rise to the "danger zone" i.e. between 45 F and 140 F. In the case of hamburger, controls would include proper storage, packaging, cleaning and sanitizing, cross contamination control, good employee hygiene, and cooking products above 140 F.

Step Two: Identify Critical Control Points

These are points in the food-handling chain at which the potential hazard can be controlled or eliminated. Referring back to our hamburger example, you need to examine the steps and controls involved in processing your restaurant beef into a hamburger patty. You ensure that you operate in your customers' best interest by incorporating safety-minded recipes and handling practices.

The first critical point in our burger example is when you receive the product. The second critical point is when the beef becomes the burger and is being handled, or "prepped." For example, have you eliminated the possibility of chemical contamination from cleaning solutions?

The third critical point is when the product is kept on the line, ready to be cooked or being cooked. Are the dishes used during this stage clean and free of bacteria? The fourth critical point where things can go wrong concerns the storage of unused product. Are you using or disposing of product before it spoils or develops an unpleasant flavor?

Step Three: Establish Preventive Measures

These are measures with critical limits for each control point: For a cooked food, for example, this might include setting the minimum cooking temperature and time required to ensure the elimination of any microbes.

Staff training is critical during this phase (See "Training is Key to any Food Safety Program" on Page 24). You need to ensure that key employees and managers develop safe food-handling practices.

Again, back to our hamburger example: You do not want to leave your beef in the danger zone for more than two hours. Teach your staff to be clock watchers. The two-hour limit does not have to be continuous. The effect is cumulative and the clock does not go back to zero each time you recool the product. If your ground beef sits in the storeroom for 30 minutes, the prep room for 30 minutes while you hand-patty it, then on a sheet pan for 15 minutes, and then on the line for 45 while breaking down at the end of the night, the item could be spoiled. This also needs to be considered with each ingredient you add to make an item. For example, were the anchovies used in your Caesar burger exposed to unsafe temperatures for an hour before you added them to the beef that had been out of refrigeration for 10 minutes?

Preventive measures in step 3 require setting standards for the person who checks in product at the point of receiving. He or she must make sure there is no leakage, that the expiration date is appropriate, and that the product is refrigerated (if required, as in the case of beef) within 10 minutes of receipt. If possible, you want to establish a supplier drop-off schedule, so that the person in charge of receiving can devote prompt attention to perishable deliveries. A leaking package could already be contaminated and could contaminate other products.

At this stage, other preventative measures include proper staff personal hygiene. This includes diligent hand cleaning after restroom use, using plastic gloves to handle food and changing gloves frequently, and hand washing after touching an unsanitary surface, including ourselves.

Staff also needs to be cognizant of equipment use. Management should order enough cutting boards so there is always a sanitized board available for use. Redundant scales and slicing equipment ensures that they can be kept clean without slowing production. Product should be weighed on paper or plastic to avoid cross contamination.

Prep cooks should be taught to work with small batches, so that no more perishable food is removed from cold storage than necessary. Unused portions should be replaced into refrigeration immediately or discarded. All products should be labeled and dated to ensure that stock is rotated and disposed after its prime.

Our third opportunity to manage our food safety is when the product is on "the line," i.e. ready to be cooked or in the process of being cooked. This is why hamburgers, for example, should be wrapped individually to avoid constantly touching the product as it is prepped and cooked. This is where strict procedures come into play. Perishable products are kept cool right up until the time they are cooked. Minimum cooking temperatures are established (e.g. 155 F for hamburger) and followed.

Finally, attention must be paid to the storage of product not used during the shift. Product must be carefully wrapped or contained by a cook wearing proper protective gloves. It is critical that kitchen staff take as much pride in food safety as food preparation. By taking ownership of this process, employees will inform management of weak links in the food safety chain and how to improve processes.

Step Four: Monitor Critical Control Points

No procedure is worth a hoot unless you can monitor its effectiveness. For example, I monitor storage and receiving procedures by requiring that every product be carefully "checked in" at the time of receipt from the supplier. We record the quantity of product received, expiration dates, and the quantity already in inventory at the time of receipt. This keeps us from accumulating too much of any product, which could result in spoliation. Daily we take inventory of the cooler and spot-check storage practices during other times.

Our chef checks the prep procedures daily. For example, he randomly weighs burgers on the line, and checks for proper wrapping when the product is removed and returned to storage. Our manager does line check with the chef before each shift and the expeditor or chef checks the cooking temperature on every third burger immediately before it is served. Any not meeting our standards are brought up to proper temperature. We also follow a regular maintenance schedule on all of our refrigeration equipment so that it maintains the proper temperature for food safety.

Personal and kitchen sanitation is not overlooked. We monitor the cooks' closing side work. The entire kitchen is cleaned to discourage pests and all equipment is cleaned and sanitized. Monitoring personal hygiene can be as simple as watching the habits of these we supervise or wondering why we never have to refill the soap dispenser in the restroom or buy more latex gloves.

Step Five: Establish Corrective Actions

If a critical limit has not been met, you need to correct the problem immediately. Our corrective actions include tossing any product that might be unsafe. A note is made and if a pattern develops we look both at our system and the person who was responsible. We find solutions to avoid repetition.

If we consistently find that the burgers are dry, we might review how they are wrapped and stored. In this case, we might find that using the parchment paper was not as effective in maintaining moisture, and that some juices were leaking on to the sheet pan on which they were placed. The corrective action in this case would be to switch to film wrapping.

If we find that we have not met a critical limit that we have set, let's say if more than two burgers tested were cooked below 155 F then we would review the problem with the cook. If the problem occurred again within a week, we would retrain the cook and monitor the temperature of every item he cooked for a week thereafter.

Step Six: Establish Procedures to Verify
that the System is Working Properly

Not receiving doctor bills from a sick guest (or a call from his attorney) is, of course, one way to know that your system is working. But you want to go further than that. Quarterly reviews of recipes, policies and procedures will help you determine the effectiveness of the version of HACCP you adapt in your restaurant. We also review a recipe and protocol if we change the specification or supplier or product.

Step Seven: Establish Effective Record Keeping
to Document the HACCP System

It is important to keep records of the hazards you've discovered, your efforts to monitor safety measures, and your corrective actions. It is just as important to routinely review these records. All information that you collect can be useful in identifying problems with food storage and preparation. For example, we track all customer comment cards. We review employee food safety infractions and critique our follow-up plans to avoid more infractions. We document all employee training, including ServSafe® and other certification courses, in-house training meetings and the subjects covered, and who attended.

While this seems like a lot of work, it is not nearly as rigorous as a bona fide HACCP program, as employed in a livestock processing operation or for a NASA mission. We do this to protect our guests and ourselves, not at the bequest of a regulatory agency. You can follow this process for each menu item, and or each ingredient in a menu item. It seems somewhat involved for each ingredient, but you will see a standardized way of dealing with product evolve.

Welcome to a Whole New Universe of Food Safety

Once you and your team have set up your logical food safety program, you need to ensure that your employees will use it on a day-to-day basis. This is the duty of management, and it has to be a priority. You can't be everywhere, and if you have set up good user-friendly systems and provide ongoing training on food safety, your program will be successful.

As you count down for the launching of your restaurant, setting up systems that are preventive will go a long way toward keeping your guests from harm. And that, in my book, is almost important as going to the moon.

-- Restaurant Startup & Growth

Initial Sources

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