By Ross Skadsberg, Director – Foodservice and Warewashing at Ecolab, Inc.
While it is important to focus on water conservation and improving operations, it is also important to focus on those things that matter most to your restaurant - one of which is food safety.
If you are like most restaurant owners, you see food safety as table stakes. You know that your reputation, guest satisfaction and your business hinge on providing your guest a high quality dining experience. Even with the pressures of cost control, high employee turnover and saving water, you want to keep your guests safe from foodborne illness. Below are some of the most common kitchen mistakes and what you can do to prevent them to help keep your guests safe.
Food Safety Mistake #1: Not washing hands
Despite your efforts, you may suspect that employees still are not washing their hands as they should. Your suspicion may be correct. A U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) study published in 2009 found that 72 percent of full-service restaurants appeared not to comply with U.S. Food Code requirements for proper, adequate handwashing. 
So what can you do to change employee handwashing behavior for the better? The CDC and FDA suggest the following:
· Guard against too much busyness: Staff adequately so employees feel they have time to wash their hands.
· Make handwashing convenient: Install hand sinks within employees’ sight – and keep supplies of soap and paper towels continuously stocked.
· Factor handwashing into food preparation flow: Structure activities to minimize the number of times handwashing is needed.
· Lead by example: Make sure that you and all restaurant managers make handwashing a visible priority.
· Keep it top of mind: Use food safety events in the news to reinforce the connection between hand hygiene and foodborne illness.
· Make it personal: When you see good behavior, reinforce it through personal recognition and appreciation.
· Offer motivation: Monitor hand hygiene compliance – and report the findings. Incentives and friendly competition among teams can inspire improved compliance.
There is also new technology available to help keep you in compliance around hand hygiene, that also saves water. Refer to the earlier article, “A new hands-off approach to saving water” for more details.
Food Safety Mistake #2: Washing chicken
If your kitchen staff is still washing chicken in preparation for cooking, now is the time to tell them to stop.
Recent research funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and conducted by Drexel University food scientists found that washing raw chicken under running water increases the risk of cross contaminating foods with serious pathogens, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, that can cause foodborne illness.
Washing doesn’t send all harmful pathogens on the bird’s surface down the drain, researchers found. Instead, drops of water splattering off the poultry transport microorganisms to other nearby foods, as well as to utensils, countertops and other surfaces that may later be used in food preparation.
Better to take chicken directly from the package to the cooking pan than to wash it the research concluded. Plus you have the added advantage of conserving water by bypassing this process.
Food Safety Mistake #3: Not using a thermometer to test doneness
Among the factors responsible for outbreaks of foodborne illness, inadequate cooking stands near the top of the list, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Failing to properly heat foods can allow pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli, to survive, increasing the risk they will be ingested with food and cause sickness.
The good news: Undercooking is a mistake that can be prevented. Using a thermometer is a sure way to assess whether food has been heated to a high enough internal temperature to kill illness-inducing contaminants. In fact, it’s the only reliable way to know food is cooked properly.
Inserting a thermometer to gauge the temperature sounds easy – and it is. So to reduce the risk of undercooking, it’s critical to encourage dedicated use of the thermometer. Education and training are critical.
Food Safety Mistake #4: Improper cold-holding temperature
Among violations that turn up during restaurant inspections, improper cold holding temperature is among the most common. It doesn’t need to be. Maintaining your refrigeration units is key.
Use of a simple appliance thermometer, staff education and ongoing vigilance can help your restaurant maintain the proper refrigerator temperature, avoid future violations and, most importantly, keep foods safe from bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and other culprits that can cause foodborne illness.
Food Safety Mistake #5: Rewashing bagged, or pre-washed lettuce
Food safety seems built into bagged, pre-washed lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens. But can the pre-wash treatment really be trusted to remove harmful pathogens and prevent foodborne illness? Or should pre-washed produce be re-washed as a further safeguard against E.coli 0157:H7, Shigella sonnei, Salmonella and other pathogens frequently associated with raw leafy greens?
With the best of intentions, many food service operators and their kitchen staffs continue to re-wash bagged, pre-washed greens. Ironically, their good intentions may be putting their guests at increased risk of foodborne illness.
A study, led by a panel of food scientists with expertise in the safety of fresh produce and reported in Food Protection Trends in 2007, reported that “leafy green salad in sealed bags labeled ‘washed’ or ‘ready-to-eat’ that are produced in a facility inspected by a regulatory authority and operated under current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) does not need additional washing at the time of use unless specifically directed on the label.”
The researchers further concluded that re-washing probably does not improve food safety, in part because harmful microbes that survive commercial washing treatments are not likely to be removed by more washing. Furthermore, washing may actually increase the risk of foodborne illness as lettuce and other leafy greens are handled by kitchen staff and allowed to contact contaminated sinks, pans and countertops. The risk of cross-contamination turns out to be greater than the possible benefits of re-washing.
By not re-washing bagged, pre-washed leafy greens, you not only help keep your food safe, you can help reduce your water usage.
Conserving water and being environmentally conscious is important, but in your restaurant, the health of your guests is also critical. Fortunately, by avoiding these common food safety mistakes, you can do both - protect your guests and protect our environment.
About the Author
Ross Skadsberg, director of Foodservice and Warewashing Marketing for Ecolab's Institutional business, is responsible for understanding the customer and market, developing products and program innovation, and positioning Ecolab as a business partner and thought leader with customers in this industry. He can be reached at email@example.com.
 Green et al, 2007; Naikoba& Hayward, 2001
 Food Protection Trends, Vol. 27, No. 11, Pages 892–898 Copyright© 2007, International Association for Food Protection 6200 Aurora Ave., Suite 200W, Des Moines, IA 50322-2864 (online at http://ucce.ucdavis.edu/files/datastore/234-851.pdf)