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Food safety checklist for restaurants

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Consumers are keeping food safety at top of mind as they choose where and what to eat. I reached out to Jorge Hernandez, senior vice president of food safety and quality assurance for U.S. Foodservice, to find out how restaurants and their employees can take action to prevent foodborne illnesses. A certified food-safety instructor, Hernandez is a former Food and Drug Administration standardization officer and serves as a board member for several organizations, including the Produce Marketing Association Food Safety, Science and Technology Committee and the GLOBALGAP board. Here is a cheat sheet of best food-safety practices that Hernandez created for SmartBrief.

1. Know your food supplier

In most cases, once the food is unsafe, you can’t make it safe again. So there’s no better way to ensure the safety and quality of your products than starting with safe, quality food. Work with a trusted food distributor and ask them about the tools and programs it has in place to ensure that you get the safest food with the best quality all the time. Be wary of suppliers that are guided solely by price; food safety has a cost, but it’s worth the investment.

It’s also important to remember that while there are no food-safety guarantees, partnering with a reputable food distributor with safe sourcing practices, and a focus on traceability and maintaining the cold chain, is operators’ best opportunity to provide safest menu options to their customers.

2. Don’t break the cold chain

Maintaining the cold chain is one of the most important ways to maintain safe, quality food. Different food items have preferred storage methods, but keeping frozen food frozen and cold foods below 41 degrees is critical. While food distributors view the cold chain in the sense of transporting foods at proper temperatures, an operator needs to continue these practices by keeping proper freezer and cooler storage until service. The quicker you get products into the freezer or cooler, the less potential for bacteria growth. In fact, any food that requires refrigeration and is left above 41 degrees for more than four hours is at a high risk of causing foodborne illness.

3. Avoid cross-contamination

Cross-contamination is the transferring of harmful bacteria between products and surfaces and a leading cause of foodborne illnesses. It’s imperative that employees keep raw foods separated from each other throughout the unloading, storing, thawing, preparation and cooking processes. Failing to do so can lead to cross-contamination and pose a substantial risk to your customers.

One effective way to reduce the spread of bacteria is by designating different knives, plates and cutting boards for meat, poultry and produce.

4. Cook foods thoroughly

Raw meats must be cooked to a high enough internal temperature to kill the harmful bacteria that cause foodborne illness. Color is not an effective way to determine whether or not meat has been cooked to the right temperature. Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods.

Different foods have different minimum cooking temperatures, and your local health department can give you a list of them. However, as a general rule:

  • Roasts, steaks and fish must be cooked to a minimum of 145 degrees for 15 seconds.
  • Poultry must reach 165 degrees for 15 seconds as measured with a food thermometer in the innermost part of the thigh, wing or the thickest part of the cut.
  • Ground and hamburger meat, where bacteria can spread during grinding, must be cooked to at least 155 degrees for 15 seconds.
  • Eggs must be cooked until the yolk and white are firm, not runny.
  • Leftovers must be thoroughly heated to 165 degrees for 15 seconds.

When using a microwave oven to cook, make sure to rotate or stir during cooking to compensate for uneven distribution of heat, cover the food to retain surface moisture and allow the food to stand covered for two minutes after cooking to obtain temperature equilibrium and make sure there are no cold spots where bacteria can survive.

5. Educate and train your employees on food safety

Your employees are critical to food safety. As the people that receive, store, handle, prepare and serve your products, they need to be a key component of your food-safety program. It all starts with education and training. Educate them about the importance of food safety and their role in it, and train them on how to receive and store foods safely, how clean and sanitize equipment and utensils, the proper cooking temperatures for foods and how to measure them. Most importantly, make employee personal hygiene your No. 1 priority.

Employee personal hygiene is the most challenging, and often overlooked, aspect of food safety and includes:

  • Employee health: Sick employees should stay home, and employees that show symptoms of gastrointestinal illness should be sent home.
  • Proper glove use and hand-washing policies: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hand-washing and proper glove use during preparation may be the single-most important way to reduce the potential for food contamination.
  • A strong policy about no eating, drinking or using of tobacco in food-storage or -preparation areas.
  • Appropriate use of hair restraints in food-preparation areas.

Operators should consider holding regular training sessions on food safety and having reminders and educational signs in the kitchen.

Stay tuned for more food-safety coverage in Restaurant SmartBrief.