Top 3 Misconceptions about Food Safety
Food safety is one of the biggest responsibilities of restaurant management. Keeping food both delicious and safe is imperative if you want customers to return. But there are so many moving pieces in a restaurant that it can be hard to keep the proverbial plates spinning. Running a restaurant involves managing employees, inventory, and accounting—all while producing food that is delicious, safe, and satisfying. As restaurant practices have gotten more complex (sous vide, anyone?), the food safety landscape and regulations have become equally intricate.
The following are 3 of the most common misconceptions about food safety in the restaurant world, with facts to dispel the myths.
“I do it the way they do it in Europe and no one really worries about food borne illness over there.”
It’s true. They make amazing raw, cured, smoked and every other kind of food in Europe. But they also have a vastly smaller population than America and an even smaller subset of that who eats out. Because risk, in its most basic terms, is a numbers game, fewer Europeans are at risk from food borne illness since there are fewer of them who eat out and could become sick. Further, training for wait staff, cooks and other restaurant staff in Europe is far more rigorous and regulated than here in America.
Training drives several of the key behaviors of food safety in a restaurant. European restaurant workers learn it in trade school, while American restaurant workers learn it on the job. From the supply standpoint, European curing houses that sell to restaurants meet very stringent criteria. Many regions have proprietary foods – such as meats, cheeses and many other products – that have inspection personnel and agricultural schools that are dedicated solely to ensuring the quality of the region’s signature foods. Charcuterie production facilities are inspected by experts in charcuterie, cheese facilities by experts in cheese, and so on. In America, food inspection personnel are trained very broadly, but by and large this training does not include European methods, hygiene, and safety practices for high-risk foods.
“No matter what I do with mycured foods or sous vide, the Health Department isn’t happy.”
This is a tough one and there are a couple of reasons behind everyone’s frustration. The underlying issue is that the Department of Health in most states operates under something called the Food Code, which does not always provide clear guidelines. The Food Code is written by the FDA and then adopted by individual states. It is written to regulate kitchens and other places where food is made and consumed in close proximity—think a restaurant’s dining room. It deals with food safety by ensuring proper cook and hold times, temperatures, and by regulating sanitation and utensils. However, it does not, by and large, deal with the more advanced prep processes like curing and sous vide, except to say that high risk processes need a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plan and that kitchen teams require training.
Local health inspectors do not always receive adequate training in HACCP and may not have the experience and expertise required to advise restaurants on crafting and implementing a plan. This is because funds for training in government departments are thin, and HACCP training for inspectors is expensive, time consuming, and infrequent. Consequently, local health inspectors are expected to evaluate fairly complicated HACCP plans without having the necessary expertise. If this is the case, the Department of Agriculture may step in. However, these two departments rarely work together (except when mandated) causing a juxtaposition of cultures, reporting structures and HACCP expectations. All of this leads to confused regulations, inspectors, and restaurant management, all trying to err on the side of caution.
“Food safety is just a lot of hassle and paperwork with no benefit.”
From the perspective of a restaurant manager or chef, it may feel as though there are few, if any, benefits to food safety training. Classes can be expensive and time consuming, taking staff away from their daily work. Documentation feels beside the point—a restaurant’s job is to create and serve delicious food, and to give customers a wonderful experience that will keep them coming back for more. Where does filling a daily log of refrigerator temperatures fit into that mission? You know that your customers are having a good experience because they return, and you know the food is safe, because you and your staff eat it. Why bother with food safety? The answer is simple: you can’t afford not to.
Regulation is a fact of the food world and restaurants are under intense scrutiny, especially when their cooking methods are creative. In today’s climate, if a meal or a product isn’t made, (1) under safe conditions, (2) using wholesome, unadulterated ingredients, (3) in a process that’s thoroughly documented, it’s an accident waiting to happen. Scheduling food safety training for your entire staff creates a culture of food safety among employees. It ensures that all staff—from back of the kitchen to front of the house—knows what’s expected to keep food, and customers, safe.
For management, and those who are crafting a restaurant’s food safety plan, taking training in food service, such as a class in HACCP is critical. It helps to determine which regulations apply to their restaurant based on their size, cooking methods, and scale.
In summary, spending time and money on food safety training is always worthwhile. After all, it is significantly cheaper to ensure food safety in the long run, than risk closures – even temporarily – and the disastrous impact a failed inspector’s report or food borne illness outbreak can have on your brand reputation.