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Keeping it clean in this business of eating

August 10, 2018

I get about 60-100 emails a day from Cape Region locals and vacationers. One subject that appears more and more often is the issue of food sanitation. One writer tells me he watched a bartender at one of our newer restaurants wiping his hands on his pants as he was mixing drinks and slicing fruit. Another visitor asks if it's proper for a manager of a semi-fine-dining restaurant to be in flip-flops while on duty. Another asks about picking up germs from bathroom doorknobs and faucet handles (cross contamination) after having washed one's hands.

Improved cooperation between food industry professionals and local health departments - especially here in Delaware - has helped to ensure that our food remains wholesome and safe during the sometimes convoluted journey from farm (or ranch) to table. They say that experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted, and that certainly applies to the volumes of rules and regulations that grew out of real-life encounters with deadly food-borne pathogens. As science and technology merged with "CSI"-style detective work, these regulations became organized into 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, strict procedures for storing, handling, cooking and serving become key elements in the training of managers, cooks and even servers. 

How long did that case of spare ribs sit on the loading dock? Is that lettuce in the walk-in cooler stored on a shelf below the raw chicken? How hot is the center of that juicy burger? Why is my server's thumbprint in my mashed potatoes? Most states mandate food service education in the form of the internationally accepted ServSafe program, a required element in every type of food industry education. ServSafe addresses these Critical Control Points where quality is threatened by temperature, cross-contamination (i.e., between raw meats and "ready to eat" items like lettuce) and wherever that server's thumb might have been before it landed in your mashers. Most of these practices are hidden behind the swinging doors of professional kitchens. The most obvious to the customer is probably those multilingual HACCP-mandated rest room signs insisting that "employees must wash their hands before returning to work." 

I often hear people complain that the person preparing their food wasn't wearing gloves, and it seems like that would be a major offense. Interestingly, many state health inspectors disagree. They maintain 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, a truck 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 the health inspector for one of my former restaurants, "the only things those gloves keep clean are your hands." 

One of my pet peeves is when a server graciously - and totally innocently - carries your half-eaten food back into the kitchen to be boxed/bagged for you to take home. The danger is that the food might be handled in the same area or even on the same surface where fresh food is waiting to be delivered to other customers. More and more restaurants are wising up to this potential for cross-contamination by bringing the carryout container to the table and letting the customer box or bag the food. In fact, when I don't finish an entire meal (sadly, not all that frequent an occurrence...) I ask the server to bring me the container rather than the partially finished plate being returned to the kitchen. 

Much of this boils down to trust. 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 - and their livelihoods - depend on vigilant food handling. Customers will forgive the wrong appetizer appearing at their table, but they won't soon forget a night spent with food poisoning. 

Happily, all this attention to science and regulation is working, and chances are very good that your restaurant experiences will be non-toxic. In fact, epidemiological studies have shown that food served by the majority of fast-food chains is safer than that prepared in your own home. Furthermore, technical advances and input from the food industry have given rise to additional generations of protocols designed to prevent, detect and respond to food safety problems. 

A case in point is McDonald's recent switch to fresh, never-frozen beef for the Quarter Pounder burgers. McDonald's store owner Michael Meoli told me that this changeover was almost two years in the making and involved literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in new equipment, training and delivery/storage procedures to ensure that the fresh meat is shipped, delivered, held, cooked, assembled and packaged properly. All that for a Quarter Pounder! McDonald's is way too big a company to ignore anything that's relevant to food sanitation. 

It's no secret that customers' sense of well-being is vital to success in the restaurant business - whether it's a food truck, a busy McDonald's or a fine-dining steakhouse. As a result, restaurateurs don't like to talk much about food safety and sanitation. But the good ones think about it all the time.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.