Food Protection Connection: Produce Management in the Foodservice Industry
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(reprinted from Nutrition & Foodservice Edge, June 2012)
Due to advances in surveillance efforts since 1998 by the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reported
outbreaks linked to produce are better tracked and reported,
making it appear as if produce is more of a problem now than it
had been prior to 1998.
Due to the increase in surveillance efforts, reported outbreaks
linked to produce almost doubled between 1998 and 2004.
Factors other than increased reporting may be at play. According
to the USDA, consumption of fruits and vegetables increased 32 percent from 1982 to 1997. If this trend is consistent, increased consumption should be expected to lead to a greater number of illnesses. Others suggest this doubling is due to increased intake of produce outside the home, such as at salad bars. Other factors that may have led to the increase are produce preparation at central sites, with produce being shipped over larger geographic areas and increased globalization— both of which would increase human exposure to potential pathogens.
According to the CDC, 12.3 percent of all reported foodborne
outbreaks between 1990 and 2007 were associated with produce.
Of those, 10 percent were linked to improper handling after leaving the farm, and 2.2 percent were associated with the growing, packing, shipping, or processing of produce. Keep in mind, the other 88 percent of outbreaks came from other foods. We should not give produce such a bad rap! That said, we shouldn’t overlook the importance of produce safety within our food establishments either
In their year-end review, the CDC reports there were 16 significant multistate outbreaks of foodborne illness in the U.S. in 2011, with five of them involving fresh produce. The culprits were romaine lettuce, cantaloupes (two outbreaks), whole papayas, and alfalfa/spicy sprouts. In 2010, there were 12 significant multistate outbreaks, with four of them linked to fresh produce. Again, most foodborne outbreaks are not linked to produce, so keep eating your fruits and veggies! But we must still be concerned about the safety of our produce.
According to the Alliance for Food and Farming, based on CDC data, “the vast majority of foodborne illness outbreaks associated with produce contaminated after leaving the farm is attributed to mishandling at the Food Service level (65 percent of outbreaks and 74 percent of illnesses)”. Not in close second were Community Events, followed by In-Home contamination. Do you have a produce management plan in your foodservice facility? You should. Why? Because unlike most foods, produce presents a unique risk. In most cases, there is no cook step for produce prior to service to kill pathogens. With produce being used in a variety of culinary techniques, there are many opportunities for potential contamination before consumption. Additionally, use of fresh produce is on the rise, especially with healthy eating initiatives for children in the school setting.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR MINIMIZING THE RISK
• You should have a Produce Procurement Plan. This would include incorporating any USDA compliance requirements and state or local health department rules. Having a procurement plan should include policies, goal planning, planning/ ordering strategies, menu development, standard operating procedures, monitoring, and verification of your plans. Sound like HACCP? Very similar. • A good procurement plan will help your procurement process go smoothly and create efficiencies. • Foodservice directors must monitor changes in their procurement plan. • A good plan will aid in traceability as it will include specifics on your vendors/suppliers. Will you use only a GAP-certified (Good Agricultural Practices) produce vendor? Know where your produce is coming from. Know your vendors. If you have the opportunity, visit the farm where your produce is grown. • Good planning leads to good food safety.
Cold Chain Management
• Produce loses nutritive value from the time of harvest to consumption. This loss is often slowed by maintaining a cold chain, or keeping the produce held at a given temperature from the time of harvest to consumption. This is not only important for quality, but for food safety. • Most foodborne pathogens do not grow well in refrigeration temperatures. Keeping produce cool helps keep any potential bacteria from growing. If not maintained, risk of foodborne illness will be increased. • To make sure the cold chain is working you must monitor and document temperatures. Make a habit of checking temperatures at certain times throughout the day. Keeping good records will provide proof that the cold chain has been maintained. Make this record part of your HACCP plan.
Cleaning and Sanitizing
• Poorly cleaned and sanitized equipment will lead to foodborne illness. From utensils to cutting boards to walk-in coolers, your food equipment and especially food contact surfaces must be properly cleaned and sanitized. • Delivery trucks should not be forgotten. When your shipments arrive, walk out to the truck and look inside. Is it clean? Is it cold? Keep your produce vendors accountable for food safety as well. • Produce itself should be cleaned (not sanitized) prior to consumption.
• Many times staff does not realize that fresh produce can be the catalyst for a foodborne illness. Training is essential. Good hygienic practice is just as important with produce as with any other food product. • Are your standard operating procedures written in a manner so they are understood by your staff or are they too complicated? • Personal hygiene is something that managers and directors need to monitor regularly. • Managers and directors should set the example and follow all personal hygiene rules as well, including handwashing and hair restraint while in the kitchen.
• Train your staff. Staff must not underestimate the ability of produce to cause foodborne illness. Often you will hear a foodservice employee say, “It’s only lettuce.” Does your staff really understand the need for controlling produce within your facility?
• Consider having all staff take a food sanitation course.
• Ask your food regulator to come talk to your staff about food safety. It’s sometimes nice to get validation from a food regulator that what the managers are saying is really true (and required).
• Conduct hands-on training. Not all people learn by reading. Some people are more visual learners. Know the learning
styles of your staff and gear training to their preferred styles.
• Annually, or more often, review Standard Operating Procedures. At each meeting take the time to review just one SOP.
To have an effective Produce Management Plan you must get to know your produce. Some items are more risky than others. You most often hear about these more risky items when there is an outbreak. According to the FDA, of most importance are cut tomatoes, cut leafy greens, sprouts, and cut melons. All should be monitored closely as they are all considered time/temperature controlled for safety foods (potentially hazardous foods). They should remain out of the temperature danger zone.
Choose melons with no visible signs of decay or damaged rinds, and are free of excess soil. Wash the surface of the melon before cutting it. Commercial produce washes are not necessary. A good washing with clean tap water will work just as well. Wash the melon with water that is 10 degrees warmer than the melon itself. This will help discourage water from drawing back into the fruit (osmotic effect). Refrigerate melons after cutting. Although melons can be eaten right away after cleaning, melons not meant for immediate consumption should be cooled before serving. Serve melons at 41°F or below. Do not leave cut melons out of refrigeration for more than 4 hours. Time and date mark melons with the day you cut them and use within 7 days of cutting. Cut melons left out of refrigeration for more than 4 hours should be discarded.
Cut Leafy Greens
Cut leafy greens include iceberg lettuce, butter lettuce, escarole, endive, spinach, romaine, leaf lettuce, baby leaf lettuce, spring mix, cabbage, kale, arugula, and chard. Leafy greens do not include herbs such as cilantro and parsley. Examine leafy greens for signs of decay or damaged leaves. Discard damaged leaves. If your leafy greens are purchased pre-washed there is no need to wash them again. Bagged cut leaf lettuce marked ‘pre-washed’ has been effectively washed, and re-washing could subject the leaves to re-contamination. If your leafy greens are not pre-washed, wash them with clean water. Be sure to pull apart the leaf layers to get in-between the various leaf blades. Keep cut leafy greens refrigerated at 41°F or below. If out of refrigeration for more than 4 hours, discard.
The FDA does not recommend that raw sprouts be consumed by anyone. Sprouts should definitely not be served raw to people who are in a Highly Susceptible Population (HSP). Children 9 years of age or younger, older adults, or immunecompromised individuals would all be considered HSP. Sprouts are typically sold ready-to-eat, so there is usually no need to re-wash them; however if the packaging recommends washing before consumption, then wash them. Should you choose to serve sprouts raw, they should only be made available to NON-HSP populations. Sprouts should be stored and served cold at 41°F or below. If left out of refrigeration for more than 4 hours sprouts should be discarded.
Avoid tomatoes that have excessive soil or damaged skin. As with melons and similar produce, wash tomatoes in clean water that is 10 degrees warmer than the tomato. After cutting, refrigerate the cut tomatoes and reduce their temperature to 41°F or below. Ideally, you should cool your tomatoes first and then cut them. As with all potentially hazardous foods, if not for immediate consumption, tomatoes should be cooled to 41°F or below before service. Do not leave cut tomatoes out of refrigeration for more than 4 hours. Time and date mark the tomatoes with the date of cutting and discard within 7 days. Cut tomatoes left out of refrigeration for more than 4 hours should be discarded.
School and institutional gardening is becoming more and more popular. Providing produce through on-site gardens has many benefits. If at a school, gardening teaches children where their food comes from. Instead of thinking their carrots come from the grocery store, children understand they actually come from a farm or garden. In elder care homes or residential living units, gardening can give a resident a sense of belonging and a sense of continued value in their society. Gardening can provide great outdoor time for all ages. Home garden produce can be brought into the commercial kitchen for use in most states; however, produce safety rules still apply at every step from
harvest through service.
While gardening has definite benefits, it presents challenges as well. Where will the garden be located? Is the garden near a potable water supply? Is there vehicular access to the garden for supplies? Do you have the support of administration? Is the garden sustainable over the growing season? Who will take care of it daily? Your plans should be carefully thought out and workable.A good thorough plan will provide wonderful benefits.
No health official would ever recommend that consumers stop or reduce their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. Quite the opposite…eat up! Fresh produce comes from a multitude of sources and countries; it is susceptible to contamination and must be handled with care. Care should be taken at all levels including the farm, shippers, processors, warehouses, foodservice operations, retailers, and consumers. Many people have a lax or uneducated attitude about fresh produce as it relates to foodborne illness… ‘oh, it’s just a salad!’ Food safety education and outreach efforts for industry and consumers need to be strengthened if we are going to control illness resulting from fresh produce contamination.
If you are in the foodservice industry—somewhere in the middle of this farm to fork food chain—do your part every day. Have a strong produce management plan that includes cold chain management, a detailed procurement plan, and a good employee training program. Know and understand your produce from farm to consumer, and always promote the safe and careful handling of fresh fruits and vegetables.
1. Analysis of Produce Related to Foodborne Illness Outbreaks. The Alliance for Food and Farming, January 2010.
2. Fruit and Tree Nut Situation and Outlook Report, USDA 1999.
3. www.cdc.gov The CDC U.S. Foodborne Disease Outbreaks Report Annual Databases from 1996-present.
by 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 and Drug Officials (CASA). Contact her at mvaccaro86@