Some straight talk about food safety

July 2, 2014

Every time I get an email about the cleanliness of a restaurant or food handling procedures, I am reminded of TV chef Julia Child’s enlightening observation: “It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate; you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.” In spite of that inescapable truth, the fact is that the majority of food-borne ailments occur at home – not in restaurants.

But it’s natural to wonder how our food remains wholesome and safe during the sometimes convoluted journey from farm to table. But restaurants – well, good ones at least – follow a logical sequence of food safety procedures known as HACCP. From the moment a seed is planted or an animal is born (or hatched), Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points are identified and monitored to ensure that the risk of contamination remains as low as possible. On the restaurant level, stringent procedures for storing, cooking and serving become a key element in the training of managers, cooks and even servers.

One of the main subjects that my emailers bring up is the use of gloves when handling food. Interestingly enough, the state health inspector for one of my former restaurants maintained that gloves can give workers a false sense of security when handling non-food items such as money, doorknobs, cans, boxes, etc. The next time you order from a carryout or a stand at an outdoor event, watch the preparer’s hands. Does he or she handle your money and make change wearing the same gloves that touched your corn dog? In the words of my health inspector, “the only things those gloves keep clean are their hands.”

Much of this boils down to trust – and hand washing! You trust the server or line cook to care enough about his job to scrub his hands after visiting the rest room. You rely on the restaurant owner to operate in her best interest by making it clear to employees that the business — their livelihood — depends on vigilant food-handling.

Happily, all this attention to science and regulation is working, and chances are good that your restaurant experiences will be non-toxic. In fact, epidemiological studies have shown that food served by the major fast-food chains is safer than that prepared in your own home. It’s no secret that the customers’ sense of well-being is vital to success in the restaurant business. As a result, restaurateurs don’t talk much about food safety and sanitation. But the good ones think about it all the time.

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