Food Protection Connection: Designing Work Space: Good Planning Ensures Excellent Benefits
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(reprinted from Nutrition & Foodservice Edge, January 2012)
Are you thinking about creating a new food facility? Or maybe you are considering remodeling. Even if you have an existing facility it’s always a good idea to stand back and review the flow of food within your operation.
Good planning will lead to excellent benefits. Most likely you’ll be asked to submit a plan review if you are opening a new facility or remodeling an existing one. During the plan review process the public health goal will be to ensure the foodservice is designed to protect the food as it travels through the facility. Food must arrive at the facility safe and remain safe as it is received, stored, prepped, held, and served to protect the public from the risk of foodborne illness.
Clientele drives the menu. It’s the menu that drives the plan review process. With proper understanding of the menu, flow can be controlled. It is all about Active Managerial Control of Risk Factors. You should always be thinking of risk factors when evaluating menus, flow, and the facility. If these are controlled the risk of foodborne illness is greatly reduced within the facility.
Risk factors include:
- Food from unsafe sources
- Inadequate cooking
- Improper holding. Time and temperature control
- Contaminated equipment
- Poor personal hygiene
If the design of a food facility is good and the food is allowed to flow correctly through the facility, control over many aspects can be influenced. Preparation time can be minimized. Proper hygiene is easier to maintain. There’s less chance of cross contamination. Cleaning and sanitizing is easier and more efficient. Additionally, there is less confusion in the work area.
In institutional food service, different from other general population facilities, menu and flow may be significantly different. Time of preparation and service may have tight constraints. The population may be a high risk community (nursing homes, hospitals, daycares, and similar), and therefore your menu may have some restricted diets that must be considered as food flows through the establishment. Mistakes cannot be made when plating very specific foods for a restricted diet. Flow and control is increasingly important in these facilities.
A kitchen itself is static. Equipment is arranged in a fixed pattern or arrangement. When in operation, the kitchen’s static equipment guides the flow of food and the movement of the people in and around the kitchen. You want a fluid pattern –one that allows the food to flow unidirectional if possible, without any crossover with raw ingredients, waste materials, or similar things that could contaminate or compromise the food. If you can manage to avoid crossovers in these areas you will face significantly reduced risk. You cannot necessarily put a piece of equipment ‘there’ just because it ‘fits there’.
Without good flow, preparation processes are negatively influenced or even interrupted. Processes and procedures can interfere with each other. There’s less efficiency as preparation time may go up and foods may end up in the danger zone too long. Additionally, hygiene practices will be affected. There’s nothing worse than standing in the middle of a final product plating area when another employee tries to scoot by with a pan of raw chicken. Mistakes will happen. You need to plan for and evaluate what might occur. Not having easy access to a handwashing sink will result in employees not washing their hands. Poor food flow and design could be the downfall of a food facility.
Flow patterns are usually arranged as either assembly lines with various configurations (L-shaped, U-shaped, parallel, circular) or in a functional flow process where ‘departments’ are utilized. The choice of flow would depend on the menu, complexity of the items being prepared, and the ultimate movement of the food to the end customer. The menu will dictate the space and equipment requirements for the safe preparation and service of various food items. The menu will determine if the current or proposed areas for receiving and delivery, storage, preparation and handling, and thawing, cooking, and reheating are available and adequate to handle the types and volume of foods being served.
When evaluating food flow, group your foods into three categories:
- Foods that do not require a cook step (ready-to-eat foods);
- Foods that involve a cook step, but only go through the danger zone once;
- Foods that require complex preparation.
Pick one food item from each category on your menus to evaluate. Stand at the beginning of the flow—this will typically be the back receiving doors. Walk the pattern of the food: receiving, storage, preparation, cooking, holding, cooling, reheating, and serving. Every time that food is in its ‘raw’ form place a red (or any color) piece of paper in that area as you walk through (on the storage shelf, on a prep table, etc.). When you are in an area where the food is in its non-raw or prepared/cooked stage, place a piece of paper that is a different color. Are your colors crossing over? As you walk through the flow are you bumping into any road blocks? If so, how can you rearrange your kitchen or design the kitchen differently so that crossing of raw with ready-to-eat products is reduced or eliminated? If it’s not possible to separate the areas, consider these areas critical control points, where procedures should be written to control the processes. This exercise can be done for any product and any flow, even if you want to evaluate allergens or salt content to be sure area of potential mistakes or contamination could occur. Take a walk and think about your food. If the facility is not constructed yet and you are evaluating a blueprint, you can apply the same technique. Pick a food item off the menu and follow it through the blueprint as it would typically move in the facility. Think of points in your food flow that may affect safety, biological contamination, chemical contamination, and physical hazards.
Does this sound familiar? Remember HACCP, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points? The HACCP approach can be easily applied to evaluating food flow within any facility. Figure 1 relates process control with the risk factors. If you are evaluating the process of making a ready-to-eat sandwich, remember to evaluate the flow while considering any points in the process where cross contamination may occur. Consider handwashing availability, proper cleaning/sanitizing, and separation of raw animal foods from this product or its ingredients.
It can be difficult to follow these distinct food processes in the facility. Sometimes there is just no logical flow in the design. It may be difficult to separate one work process from another because there are no clear boundaries. More times than not, the same work areas and equipment are being used for more than one type of food process. When more space is needed it becomes the norm to combine processes, services, and equipment uses to become more efficient or financially sound. The truth is, when distinct processes are separated, less interference occurs. When you reduce interference you become more efficient. In the institutional food industry—probably more than any other industry—precision, safety, and efficiency is a must. The volume of food, the variety of foods due to dietary constraints, the population (typically a highly susceptible population), the very short windows of time in which food needs to be prepared, plated and served, all create additional constraints or layers to evaluating flow. Mistakes just cannot happen. Consider all these factors as you follow the flow of food through your facility. Can food safety be controlled with consideration for all these layers in place? Does the design or layout of the kitchen promote good flow and food safety, given constraints that may be placed on the foodservice operation and workers?
When space is not properly designed, flow can be disrupted and even stopped. When that happens, the inherent hazard becomes easy to identify. As a food safety inspector, I could provide many examples of violations that occurred due to lack of space, poor food flow, and facility design. Oops! I had to sit the pot of chicken in the mop sink because my prep table was being used. I couldn’t wash my hands because we got a shipment and I had to bring it in the storeroom and the only place to put the boxes was in front of the handwash sink. I had to prepare 150 turkey dinners for our residents, but did not have enough cooler space to properly cool all of the turkeys, so we left some of them sit out to cool overnight. All of these inherent problems are created due to not understanding the menu, food volume, and design and flow from receiving to service. I have seen it all…but excuses won’t stop a foodborne outbreak from happening. Good planning and evaluation of the food facility will.
Whether you are designing a food facility or evaluating an existing kitchen, you need to create a positive flow. Foodservice managers should be involved in this design and evaluation. They, not the architect or builders, will know and understand their menu, their food flow, and their clientele. The foodservice manager will be able to evaluate design and flow while considering inherent hazards that could occur based on their specific menu and service methods.
So, take the time this New Year to evaluate your facility. Even the best of the best can make improvements. Review your menu, understand your menu, and evaluate or re-evaluate your food flows. This will help you ensure that food is protected as it travels through your facility, and your customers remain healthy.
by Melissa Vaccaro, MS, CHO
Melissa Vaccaro, MS, CHO is a Food Program Specialist for the PA Department of Agriculture and an Executive Board Member for the Central Atlantic States Association of Food Drug Officials (CASA). Contact her at email@example.com.