While maintaining food safety is not the most glamorous part of running a restaurant, without it, everything else we do is for naught. No matter how inviting the dining room, how beautiful and tasty the food, how innovative the wine list and cocktails are and how impeccable the service, if someone gets sick from food they’ve eaten in your establishment, it could cost you everything you’ve worked for in one miserable, avoidable moment. Let’s look at how to run an operation that insures the food you serve is as safe to eat as it is enjoyable.

First, realize that everyone working in your kitchen needs to be familiar with the basics of safe food handling practices. It’s not sufficient for only the chefs or kitchen manager to know what’s important in terms of what’s acceptable and what’s not. If your pot washer has never been told it’s a terrible idea to put clean sheet pans on a speed rack under a pan of raw chicken breasts, it won’t be long before you’ll be wishing that no one was left out of the food safety discussions and training. It’s fine for the managers to be primarily responsible for the initial training, very regular reminders and near-constant observation, but everyone needs to be in on the act. Strive to establish a communal feeling of responsibility about food safety in your kitchen. Food service professionals should develop a visceral reaction against serving food that can cause guests to become ill.

Before getting into the particulars of different hazards and how to mitigate them, the point should be made that simply maintaining the highest standards of basic cleanliness goes a long way in making a restaurant a safe and inviting place to work or dine. Customers and health inspectors alike want to be able to take for granted that the floors, walls, restrooms and windows are spotless, the kitchen is grease and pest-free, the workers maintain a certain level of hygiene, the plates, china and silverware have no fingerprints and that no stray hairs appear. Anywhere. None of these things will happen on their own, so put systems in place to insure that they do, and make sure someone is responsible to see that those systems are being used religiously.

Food Contaminants

There are three basic types of food contaminants that we have to concern ourselves with: chemical, physical and biological.

Every kitchen contains chemicals that, if they come in contact with the foods we serve in sufficient quantities, will cause chemical poisoning. Cleaners, pesticides, adhesives and disinfectants all have their place in a commercial kitchen, but that place is not in the food. Keep all of these products in well marked, sealed containers, in separate storage areas sequestered from food storage or preparation areas. Hazardous Material Data Sheets for all such products should be readily available for all staff to refer to. Pesticides are best left to professionals, and not stored in your kitchen at all. Also be sure that all of your food is stored in containers approved for that purpose. Some plastic garbage bags, for instance, contain poisons.

Physical contaminants include many items that could end up on a guest’s plate through lack of attention from a member of your kitchen or wait staff, or maybe from poor procedures in either you kitchen or dining room. While some may cause disease, others injury and others “merely” disgust, their presence should be avoided at all cost. Glass, metal shavings, hair, dirt, rocks, plastic wrap, foil or bandages are all examples of physical contaminants. Train your staff to really pay attention to what they are serving, and encourage them (and give them reasons) to take pride in their work. This one step will cure many ills, and not just in the arena of food safety. Also be on the lookout for procedures or situations in your operation that may be increasing the likelihood of physical contaminants working their way into your food. If you discover that one of the cooks doesn’t check the dried pinto beans for rocks before cooking them, another is sloppy with the way he covers a bain on the line with foil, and one of your waiters is particularly proud of his wind-swept hairdo, you will have put yourself in a position to keep rocks, foil and hair off your guest’s plates.

In terms of food borne illness, the most significant contaminants are biological. These contaminants also require the most training and work to keep off your menu, although to say that it’s well worth the time and effort to do so is a huge understatement. It’s absolutely not an option to be cavalier about this in your kitchen. If it ever seems like you are too busy to learn or to always follow the proper procedures of food handling, you are wrong. Let’s look at these pathogens, the foods most likely to be contaminated by them and how we can reduce the risk of food borne illness through proper food handling.

Pathogens are microorganisms found in food that, when present in sufficient quantities, will make a person sick. Common examples are Salmonella, Streptococcus, Trichinella Spiralis and Staphylococcus Aureus. It is important to understand that not all foods are created equal in terms of how hospitable a host they are to these, and other, pathogens. Foods that are more likely to contain these types of organisms, and in which these organisms are likely to thrive, are considered to be “potentially hazardous” foods.

For pathogens to live and reproduce in sufficient quantities to become a problem, they need: sufficient water and protein, a specific pH range (acidity level), a certain temperature range, and they need it all within a certain period of time. Keeping pathogens at bay in a kitchen is largely about understanding which foods are their potential natural hosts, and then handling those foods in such a way that denies the pathogens the aforementioned parameters.

Foods that are at least fairly soft have sufficient water content to consider them to be potentially hazardous. Most dairy products, eggs, meats and seafood qualify. Nuts, hard cheeses, dried and salted foods like ham or salami, dried pasta, dried beans and uncooked whole grains typically will not have enough moisture to support pathogens.

The most obviously protein-rich foods such as meats, seafood, eggs and dairy are, indeed potentially hazardous foods. Cooked starchy products like pasta, rice, beans and potatoes also contain sufficient protein to make the list. Vegetables and fruits generally don’t contain enough protein to be a major problem in terms of pathogens.

The pH scale describes how acid or alkaline a substance is. The lower an item is on the pH scale, the more acidic it is; the higher an item is on the scale, the more alkaline it is. Lemon juice, which (for food) is very acidic, has a pH value of about 2. Baking soda, which is very alkaline (again, for food) has a pH value of approximately 9. Water has a pH of 7. Pathogens prefer an environment with a moderate pH and, unfortunately in this regard, most foods fall within this range.

While there’s frequently not many ways we can effect the moisture, protein and pH level in a particular product, there’s a lot we can do in terms of the last two variables that determine whether pathogens thrive or die: temperature and time. Most pathogens will reproduce most vigorously between 40˚F and 140˚F. This is called “the danger zone” for that reason. During the time the foods we are serving are kept within this range, the pathogens present in them can reproduce very, very quickly. When the conditions are at their best (as far as the microorganisms are concerned), one bacterium could divide into almost 40 million in six hours. Keeping foods, especially potentially hazardous foods, either above or below the danger zone as much as possible from receiving, through storage, prepping, cooking, holding and serving is one of the most important things you can do in terms of reducing the risk of food borne illness, and keeping your guests and business safe. We’ll now look at just how you can accomplish this.

As soon as a delivery of food is received, all perishable items should be stored at the proper temperature immediately. Refrigerators should be kept between 34˚F and 40˚F, freezers at 32˚F or below. Realize that refrigerating or freezing will not kill pathogens, but only slow their growth down. Don’t forget to rotate your stock; first in, first out. Also remember to always store raw items below those that are ready to eat. It’s bad enough if a case of raw chicken leaks Salmonella onto the floor of the walk-in, but you really don’t want it leaking onto a tray of sliced ham.

The way you thaw your frozen foods is important. If you have the time, the best way is to take them from the freezer to the refrigerator and let them thaw at their leisure. This insures that the product stays below 40˚F at all times. In all reality, the second best way will probably be used more often. Place the wrapped and frozen item in a sink and let cold water flow over it constantly until thawed. As soon as it is thawed, place it in a pan in a cooler until needed.

After preparing stocks, soups and stews, the idea is to get them cooled down and out of the danger zone (below 40˚F) as quickly as possible. This can be accomplished by transferring the product to a vessel that conducts heat well (a stainless bain or aluminum pot is ideal; a plastic bucket, less so), placing the container in a sink, filling the sink with ice, and stirring the contents frequently. Using a frozen “ice wand” to stir is even better. You may have to divide the product into smaller batches. Once it reaches 40˚F, place in a covered container and refrigerate. To quickly cool things like rice, potatoes and stuffings, spread them out onto a sheet pan in a thin layer.

When reheating foods, keep them refrigerated until right before you plan on heating them, then do it as quickly as possible over an open flame, using an instant reading thermometer to reach a temperature of at least 145˚F. Thinking you can heat food up by placing it cold, into a steam table, is not a good idea for several reasons. When holding hot foods at service, use an instant reading thermometer frequently to insure that the products are above 140˚F. It they are not, reheat them immediately and quickly. If you don’t know how long they have been in the danger zone, throw them out.

Sanitizing something means that you have killed any pathogens on the item using moist heat, chemicals, or a combination of both. Always keep enough containers of a sanitizer such as bleach, iodine or quaternary ammonium solutions with cloths in your kitchen so that it is easy for your cooks to frequently wipe down their tools and work surfaces. Cross contamination occurs when a surface or utensil has been contaminated with something (like raw chicken), and then used for something else (like a salad) without first being sanitized. Everyone in your kitchen should be very familiar with the concept of cross contamination and make sure it never happens. Keep hand-washing stations stocked with soap, sanitizer and paper towels, and make sure your staff uses them.

If ware washing is done by hand, it must be done in a three-compartment sink. The first sink has water of at least 120˚F and detergent. The second has rinse water of at least 130˚F. The third should be filled with water of at least 170˚F, with the items submerged in it for at least 30 seconds, then air-dried. Alternately, the third sink can be filled with a sanitizer, following the manufacturers directions.

Pests can be an issue. Cover garbage cans and have them emptied frequently. Keep your kitchen organized and clean, including storage areas. Keep any holes in walls or foundations sealed. A professional pest service may be necessary, but always keep an eye on their work to make sure no contamination occurs.

I have not stressed actual inspections from your Health Department because if you follow the procedures outlined above, you’ll have nothing to worry about. Always remember that you and the inspector are on the same side and have the same goals. Look at them, as well as the Food Service Certifications that are offered by your City, as allies in the effort to run a clean, healthy establishment.