No one, including crack restaurant inspector Jeff Nelken, likes looking under refrigerators for yesterday's forgotten dirt, filth and food particles shoved underneath by busy feet. He does it religiously though, two or three times a day, 300 days a year. Like every food safety inspector, Nelken has horror stories that could make toes curl. But his proudest tales are of bringing a filthy restaurant back from the dead or helping a five-star restaurant avoid a failing grade or "closed" sign in its window.
Nelken is a premier food safety coach who has invented a Five-Star Inspection Program. This fast, thorough process helps his clients learn to use self-inspection as a path to self-reliance. He believes that too many owners rely solely on third-party auditors and health department inspectors to do their jobs for them. A better way, he advises, is to build food safety and pride into every restaurant activity.
Star 1: Assign Responsibility
Designate responsibility to one person for ensuring that everyone is trained in the same way. This is probably the most important job in the restaurant. This person must assign tasks, train, monitor and correct. The goals are simple:
- Put the operation back into your hands.
- Recognize and reward your staff for achievement.
- Set standards for food safety performance.
- Teach the staff how to tell the difference between good and bad practices.
- Improve quality and reduce waste.
- Handle complaints and crises immediately.
Arm your internal inspector with the proper tools. Nelken recommends a flashlight, thermocouple, monitoring forms and sanitizer test strips. "We also suggest that the designated onsite person and the owner/ manager perform a thorough review of a variety of reports," said Nelken. "They will tell you a lot about what's right and wrong with your place of business." He suggests reviewing the following from a six-month period:
- health department inspection reports
- pest control inspection reports
- workers' compensation claims
- accident reports
- customer complaints.
Star 2: Train Staff Thoroughly
"As a prime example of poor training, we often find that food handlers don't even know why, when or how they are supposed to double-wash their hands after using the restroom," said Nelken. "Even if the bathroom sports a sign that food handlers need to wash their hands after using the restroom, this is an easy one to skip, especially if it is not emphasized in the company's culture." Ask yourself:
- Do you do a food safety and accident prevention orientation?
- Do you document training and progressive disciplinary actions?
- Do you have a sick policy in place?
- Have you given training on how to handle chemicals safely?
Basic training should include the following to fulfill Star 2:
- job safety knowledge
- safety equipment to protect the worker
- hand washing: how and when
- food handling basics
- receiving and storage
- cross contamination
- cleaning food to make it safe
- holding food to make it safe
- using the cold and hot tables
- serving food safely
- dish-and pot-washing
- chemicals, sanitizers and test strips
- foods to go
- party safety
- food allergy awareness
- understanding health department inspections.
Star 3: Control Time and Temperature
"We find that the biggest stumbling blocks to a good inspection report are time and temperature controls," Nelken said. "This is a frustrating but achievable goal that must be watched as closely as your reputation." The number-one cause of foodborne illness is improper cooling of hot food, which can cause as many as half of all illnesses.
Star 4: Screen Deliveries
The kitchen staff must know how to screen deliveries. Sometimes, however, teaching that skill can be difficult. "We find that more and more workers speak English as a second language," Nelken says. "While this might have been common only in New York, California and Texas some years ago, it is not uncommon in all 50 states these days." This makes the job even more difficult, but discussing, monitoring and repeatedly reviewing inspection criteria help make it easier. One of the most important steps in ensuring a clean, safe restaurant is knowing when to reject food.
Certain critical but frequently overlooked signs suggest that food being delivered to your restaurant does not pass muster. Nelken suggests teaching your staff that anyone allowing substandard food to be delivered will be subject to disciplinary action—it's that serious. He advises rejecting deliveries under these conditions:
- Frozen food has thawed
- Expiration dates have passed
- Packaging is not intact
- Food received is above 45°F (check your local jurisdiction)
- Food and chemicals are mixed together in the same delivery
- Delivery trucks have signs of roaches, flies or rodent feces
- Missing ingredient labels
Star 5: Be Aware of Potential Dangers
Know your Time, Temperature, Control for Safety (TCS). Teach your employees that extra care must be taken with these foods to avoid a poor inspection or sick patrons. "We have seen a rise in foodborne illnesses from foods that used to be unlikely culprits, like lettuce, flour, spices, green onions and shellfish. If you have a sick employee, any food could be fair game," Nelken said. The most common TCSs are:
- cut melons and tomatoes
- sprouts, eggs
- dairy and juices (pasteurized only)
- meat, seafood, tofu
- cooked vegetables, rice, beans, pasta and potatoes
- garlic, onions and herbs in oil
- creamy pastries and cakes.
Take time to educate your staff about these TCSs and post this list as a reminder. "So there you have it," said Nelken. "The Five-Star Inspection Program is a big nut to chew, but once it has been learned, rehearsed and monitored, you will never have to feel apprehensive about inspections again."
Nelken added that there is quite a bit of buzz currently about the potential for bioterrorism sabotage at self-service stations in restaurants. "Unfortunately, we might have to add a sixth star in the future to address this issue."