Food Protection Connection: Food Safety FAQs
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(reprinted from Nutrition & Foodservice Edge, September 2012)
There are always questions to be asked when it comes to food safety. We food protection professionals live our lives around food, food safety, regulations, recalls, nutritional and allergen issues, but still find ourselves seeking answers.
I’d like to think I ‘know it all’ about food safety, as every day of my life revolves around food safety as a regulatory person, but I certainly don’t. I’m not ashamed to have to look something up now and then. One of the greatest lessons I learned in college was that knowing your resources and how to use them is half the battle in finding answers.
Everyone in food safety should have several reference documents available. Of course today, these items might be on your computer and not on your bookshelf. As a food safety professional you should have at your fingertips the web addresses for the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) and FDA (Food and Drug Administration); the FDA Model Food Code; your state or local government’s food safety regulations; and your food certification book/manual (if they were required for a food safety class). Have reliable and trustworthy references. Use your reference documents and material—get to know them, love them, trust them, and they will have answers whenever you need them. Ok, maybe that is a bit overboard, but you get my point.
Certain frequently asked questions (FAQs) seem to pop up over and over again from industry, consumers, and regulatory staff as well. A few of them will be discussed briefly here.
If state and federal regulations regarding food safety practices differ, what regulations am I obligated to follow?
As much as this seems like it would have an easy answer, it does not. If you are a retailer, someone who sells or serves food direct to the consumer, you will follow the regulations of your state’s licensing agency. (Note: Retailers are restaurants, grocery stores, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and the like.) Who is your licensing agency? In some states, this may be the state’s Department of Agriculture, and in others it may be the state’s Department of Health. To complicate things more, in some states there are local health departments (county, township, city, borough) that have jurisdiction over retail food facilities. In these cases, it would not be the state that is the licensor of the retail facility, it would be the local health jurisdiction. Some states have both state and local agencies. Depending on your location within the state, you could be inspected by either of these agencies.
Why is there confusion with ‘federal’ laws? The FDA publishes a Food Code every two years. This is just a ‘model code.’ Though not required to, most states for uniformity have adopted into law or regulation some versions of the FDA Food Code. This is where the confusion comes in. There is no law that says states must follow this model code. You will always follow the regulations in your state (whether local health or state regulations), but you may find differences in what the FDA Food Code says and what your regulatory agencies’ rules say. This is because some states have chosen not to adopt some portions of the FDA Food Code. If you are a retailer, always follow the regulations of the agency that is issuing your food license. Keep a copy of that regulation in your reference materials.
Manufacturers and wholesalers of food are very different. They most likely will follow the rules of both their state and the federal government. This is a much more complicated program and should be discussed directly with the licensing agencies.
What other agencies or laws do I need to be concerned about?
Other state and local agencies regulate areas such as zoning and building codes, fire safety, septic/sewer/water installation and maintenance. Start by contacting your local government office (township office, city hall, borough office) to determine what other laws, regulations, or licensing may be needed. Don’t forget to contact your state Department of Revenue as well. If you are going into a food business where you could incur liability, though not required by most states or local governments, insurance should be considered to safeguard against losses from fire, illness, and injury.
If I am serving a high-risk client group (elderly, children, immune-compromised) am I required to use pasteurized eggs in meals and recipes?
The answer to this goes back to the prior question. Who is your licensing agency? Your licensing agency’s regulations would dictate the answer. If your licensing agency follows the 2009 FDA Food Code, then the answer is yes.
If you are serving a highly susceptible population (HSP), be aware that both eggs and juice receive special attention in the Food Code. You should generally avoid using fresh shell eggs for food preparation. Instead, use pasteurized egg products for quantity cooking and for recipes in which eggs will not be thoroughly cooked (such as egg nog or Caesar salad). A whole, fresh egg may be used only for a single service item prepared for immediate service (such as an omelet or scrambled eggs cooked to order). Today, fresh eggs are also available pasteurized in-shell. This means the whole, fresh egg has been pasteurized, typically at low temperatures. Pasteurized in-shell eggs are fine for both single-service and quantity production. Since fairly new to the foodservice industry, the use of in-shell pasteurized eggs should be reviewed with your regulatory agency.
If eggs are combined as an ingredient immediately before baking and the eggs are cooked completely to the required temperature, then raw shell eggs can be used. This might be a cake or bread recipe.
The only other time that raw shell eggs can be served/used in a HSP facility is if a HACCP Plan is developed and followed to control the risk of Salmonella enteritidis.
If an individual requests a “rare” burger or other meat that does not meet temperature standards, can I satisfy his request for the undercooked item?
Again, please verify your state follows the 2009 FDA Model Food Code.
According to the Food Code, if you are serving a HSP (nursing home, hospital, senior center, daycare) you may NOT serve undercooked meat, fish, or poultry—even if a customer requests it. The Code does not allow for a consumer advisory to be used in a highly susceptible population.
In a general population facility (restaurant, grocery store, deli, etc.) undercooked foods may be offered for sale or service as long as a consumer advisory is provided. Details on what a consumer advisory entails can be found in the FDA Food Code. The only caveat to this rule is that ground meat may not be offered undercooked on a children’s menu.
How do I know if a food in my facility has been recalled due to a health concern?
In most cases, if you have not heard about a recall on the news, your distributor will call to inform you about the recall and how to dispose of or return the product. Manufacturers who initiate a recall do their best to follow the food in question through the distribution chain and inform all facilities impacted. You may also be contacted by your regulatory agency to verify if you have any of the recalled products. In some cases, press releases are issued to the general public. If you are unclear about the products affected by a recall, please visit the FDA website at: http://www.fda.gov/safety/recalls/default.htm. The FDA has a comprehensive list of ongoing recalls that can be reviewed by the public.
Is antibacterial soap better than regular soap? What about instant hand sanitizers?
They are not recommended over regular soap, as the benefit from antibacterial soap is so insignificant. Washing your hands correctly is more important than the type of soap you use. Additionally, some scientists are concerned that the use of antibacterial soaps and similar products may contribute to problems with antibacterial resistance. Hand sanitizers can help reduce bacteria on your hands, however, these products have not been shown to be effective against viral or protozoan pathogens commonly associated with foodborne illness. Therefore, in the foodservice industry, they are not meant to be a substitute for soap!
Are restaurant workers required to wear gloves?
Again, refer to your state or local regulations, but according to the FDA Food Code, gloves are NOT required. What is required is that bare hands NOT contact ready-to-eat foods. Gloves are only one means of complying with this rule. The list also includes deli tissue, tongs, and other dispensing equipment. Gloves are not required but are acceptable as long as good glove hygiene is practiced. They must be used properly or you could have big food safety problems.
Can a client retain leftover food from a catered function?
Yes. It is not against most state rules to allow a client to take home any unused foods that have been pre-purchased by the client. Do not confuse this question with the re-service of food. According to the FDA Food Code, “after being served or sold and in the possession of a consumer, food that is unused or returned by the consumer may not be offered as food for human consumption.” This question is a scenario in which a client purchases food for an event—a wedding reception buffet, for example. The food is out for the client’s guests and not all of the food is eaten. Can the client take the food that he has pre-purchased but his guests have not eaten, pack it up and take it home? Most states will respond that this practice is fine. They do not consider this to be re-serviced food. I am sure some would argue this decision. What could not happen is that the provider of the food could not take the unused food from the wedding reception buffet that has been out in the possession of the client and his guests, bring it back into his kitchen and re-serve the food at the baby shower going on down the hallway or save it as leftovers for the graduation party going on tomorrow in the facility. Since the food was in the possession of the client, the food could not be re-served to another client.
It would be in the best interest of the caterer to have a signed agreement with the client specifying that when they release the food to the client it becomes the client’s responsibility to act accordingly and follow all food safety rules. I also suggest, via labeling or some other means, reminding the client that once the food is removed from temperature control they have to either immediately cool the product(s) to 41°F or consume it within two hours.
Should I use a wooden or plastic cutting board?
A wood cutting board is acceptable equipment as long as it is made from a hard, closed-grained wood like maple. Research shows that nonporous surfaces such as plastic, marble, tempered glass, and pyroceramic are easier to clean than wood. Whether wood or plastic, when a board becomes excessively worn or develops hard-to-clean grooves it should be replaced. All cutting boards wear out over time.
What color is safely cooked poultry?
According to the USDA, “safely cooked poultry can vary in color from white to pink to tan.” Always rely on an accurate thermometer to verify that a proper cook temperature has been reached. Poultry will be safe if cooked to 165°F when checked at the thickest part of the breast and the innermost part of the thigh.
Why is pre-packaged ground beef red on the outside and sometimes dull, grayish-brown inside?
Many people call to complain that butchers or grocery stores put fresh meat over old meat to cover up the old meat. This is not true. This color effect, red on the outside and brownish on the inside, is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Oxygen from the air reacts with meat pigments shortly after slaughter. This reaction produces a bright red color which is usually seen on the surface of meat. The surface has the most contact with oxygen in the environment. The interior of the meat may appear grayish brown due to the lack of oxygen. The pigment found in all warm-blooded animals which is responsible for this red color is oxymyoglobin. Fresh cut meat will be purplish in color. If all of the meat (interior and surface) has turned gray or brown, it may indicate spoilage.
Are produce and vegetable washes effective?
While considered safe for use on produce and vegetables, the actual effectiveness of these washes is debatable. Most research indicates that water is just as good. If they give you peace of mind, by all means use them. If you are concerned about their cost, plain old potable water will do the trick as well.
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@ gmail.com