Food-Borne Illnesses: What You Need to Know

Protecting your guests against food-borne illnesses is one of the most important duties of any chef or restaurateur. Training and proper procedures can help you minimize the risks, but if the worst should happen, you'll need to be accountable to your guests. Here's what you should know.

Training and Prevention

The basics of food safety are simple enough to fit into a few tweets, but applying them at your restaurant requires an ongoing commitment to training. The best option is a formal training program, such as the National Restaurant Association's ServSafe curriculum, which is mandatory in some jurisdictions. If you must self-train, good resources are also available through the Partnership for Food Safety Education, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Time and Temperature

The microorganisms responsible for many food-borne illnesses, which are collectively referred to as pathogens, flourish best at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Common temperature risks include:

  • Hot foods that are held at temperatures below 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Cold foods that are held at temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Perishable foods or ingredients left out for two hours or longer.
  • Foods or ingredients not being maintained at a safe temperature prior to delivery.
  • Foods not cooked to a safe internal temperature.
  • Foods not cooled quickly to a safe internal temperature for later use.

Luckily, you can avoid these risks by taking the following preventive measures:

  • Check and log the temperature of all foods and warming equipment (steam tables, etc.) at regular intervals during each shift, or as directed by your local public health authority. Have your equipment serviced immediately if it can't maintain a correct temperature.
  • Check and log the temperature of all refrigeration units regularly throughout each shift, or as directed by your local public health authority. Have your equipment serviced when necessary, and in areas where refrigeration is not available, use ice baths, frozen gel packs, or other techniques to keep food at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Set clear written standards for the handling of perishables. No perishable ingredient should spend more than two hours out of the refrigerator.
  • Train receiving staff to temperature-check incoming products, and to reject perishables that are already at unsafe temperatures or show signs of thawing and refreezing.
  • Test foods with an instant-read thermometer as needed, or cook foods with a probe thermometer when applicable.
  • Foods must reach a safe temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower as quickly as possible. Divide large batches into smaller portions and more shallow containers when possible, and use ice baths, gel packs, and other quick-cooling techniques as needed. Monitor the temperature of your foods with an instant thermometer as they cool.

Contamination and Cross-Contamination

Contamination is when safe foods become unsafe because outside substances or pathogens were able to come into contact with them. Food can become contaminated when stored near cleaning chemicals or when physical debris, such as a stray bristle from a grill brush or dirty grease dripping from a range hood, finds its way into the dish or storage container. Here are some solutions for preventing contamination:

  • Your chemical supplier can check your storage arrangements and advise you.
  • Train staff to identify hazards and maintain good physical cleanliness.
  • Use separate utensils, surfaces, and prep areas for unsafe foods whenever possible, and emphasize hand-washing and sanitation to employees.

Cleanliness and Sanitation

Arguably the most obvious requirement for food safety is proper cleanliness and sanitation. Be sure to train your staff to not only properly clean all work surfaces, but to also use sanitizing products correctly. You should provide adequate hand-washing facilities for all staff members and train them on proper hand-washing techniques as well. If you use gloves, provide them in adequate numbers and train your staff to change them whenever they switch tasks.

How to Cope with an Outbreak

Even if you do everything correctly within your own kitchen, you could still use an ingredient that's been contaminated at the source. For instance, produce can contain E. coli, and meats can be contaminated with salmonella or listeria. Awareness is your best defense against these outbreaks, so subscribing to the FDA's e-mail updates is a smart idea.

If a product or ingredient you use is affected by a recall or connected to an outbreak, act quickly. Locate an alternative supply of that ingredient, and discard any menu items it's been used in. Post notices at your restaurant and on your website or social media pages advising guests who may be affected to seek medical attention if they don't feel well. Medical visits provide the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with the information it needs to track the spread of larger outbreaks.

How to Deal with an At-Fault Incident

If you receive a complaint about a possible food-borne illness, try to identify which items the diner consumed as quickly as possible. If you can, save a portion of each for testing. Check with your local health authority for any specific measures they may require you to take. If your food or food handling proves to be at fault, review your procedures and address the underlying cause. If norovirus is the culprit, for example, inadequate hand-washing is the probable cause.

Be Forthright

If you're at fault, don't try to hide it or sugarcoat it. Instead, use your own website or social media pages to explain the steps you're taking to identify how the problem occurred and to prevent any future incidents. If you're required to shut down for a few days, post similar notices on your door. Assure your customers that you're focused on their safety and health, and that you will reopen once you're confident the problem has been addressed.

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