Misconceptions in Food Safety Can Derail Best Efforts

Similar stories abound from instructors of food manager certification classes. A young woman might raise her hand and ask if it’s really necessary to run raw potatoes through the dishwasher before cooking them, or a young man might question why he can’t refreeze extra ground beef that was accidentally thawed. Perplexed, the instructor might wonder from where these misinterpretations of food safety stem.

Not surprisingly, oftentimes these ideas come from long-held beliefs passed down from previous generations, without any kind of current-day science backing them up. Commonplace in the realm of food safety, these misconceptions make the already challenging job of ensuring food safety that much more so. Add in the fact that people concerned about food safety often come from different backgrounds and educational perspectives – whether as a restaurant manager or food inspector, a chef or a regulator – and one finds that the reasons behind certain food safety practices are often misunderstood and improperly applied.

Anyone who has worked in a restaurant, in any capacity, will tell you that it’s hard work, and the high turnover rate for the industry is not just a testament to this but also one of the challenges in and of itself. Although it can seem an easy out to not stay on top of food safety training, the consequences can be financially severe. Restaurants can now expect to be responsible for the expenses associated with investigating outbreaks as well as fines for critical violations and re-inspections. And advanced traceback methods make it likely that, if a restaurant is to blame for an outbreak, it will quickly be determined.

But the food code is not universal – depending on what part of the country an establishment is operating in determines the version that a restaurant will be held to. This can be especially frustrating for chains with units around the country or even in differing counties. In addition, inspectors can be somewhat subjective, and what one might consider a critical violation, another could act with leniency. Still, the actions of one overzealous inspector easily become generalized to represent the actions of all inspectors. This is lamentable.

However, let’s not give restaurant managers a free pass. If conditions were perfect, all meat temperatures would be measured before serving, bare hands would never contact ready-to-eat foods, distributors would always deliver perfectly cold food products in completely sanitary trucks, and restaurant employees would never get sick. Overcoming these hurdles to run a safe and efficient operation is the restaurant manager’s goal.

Still, these challenges are not new. But to manage them, and, more importantly to ensure a safe dining experience for all customers, all the time, restaurants and regulators need to come together in an effort to foster genuine cooperation and honest communication. Regulators can work to offer practical solutions to everyday challenges, even if something as simple as a more effective way to prevent cross-contact of allergens or to cool foods. These in turn become teachable moments that restaurant managers can and will pass on to their employees. And by understanding the reasons behind the methods, safety measures are more likely to be applied.

No matter the size of the establishment, or the position of the food industry professional, all members need to partner together to find workable food safety solutions that benefit everyone – keeping businesses efficient and profitable and keeping customers safe from foodborne illnesses.

Cindy Rice, RS, CP-FS, MSPH is president of Eastern Food Safety, epidemiologist, certified  food safety educator, consultant, and speaker/author for the food industry, regulators and consumers.  For more information, please visit www.easternfoodsafety.com or email info@easternfoodsafety.com