From food trucks to fine-dining kitchens, where ever food preparation takes place, food safety is the number-one priority. An operator must never forget that food is perishable, requiring it to be properly handled before, during and after preparation. And because menus change, the production process parameters change. Diligence is paramount.

According to a recent food safety survey by Hahn Public Communications, Austin, Texas, seafood ranks highest in consumer concern. Meat comes in second, with prepared/take-out foods, fresh produce and dairy following in order on the concern scale. The study also found that once the public decides a food product is unsafe, winning back confidence is tough.

The reality is that most consumers do not think about foodborne illness until someone unknowingly consumes contaminated food and gets ill, or at worse, dies. While the U.S. food supply is one of the safest in the world, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, estimates that roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne disease annually. A commissary operator never wants to be one of these statistics.

“Two of the greatest potential foodborne microbiological threats are Listeria monocytogenes and Staphylococcus aureus,” said Don Schaffner, PhD, spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists, Chicago, and professor of food microbiology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J. “Both can occur in the food handling environment, which is why good sanitary practices and time-temperature control must be properly managed.”

These are the foundation for the four rules to follow to ensure safe food preparation and handling. They are: clean, separate, cook and chill. (See sidebar.)

Keeping Microbes Away

Microbes are everywhere, which is why clean, separate, cook and chill are so fundamental in commissary operations. For example, Staphylococcus is carried on the human body, with workers’ hands the most direct mode of transfer to food.

“Staphylococcus thrives in food environments where most other microorganisms cannot survive, such as high-sodium, low-moisture,” said Dr. Schaffner. “The S. aureus species produces a toxin that is heat stable. The toxin can make you sick for a day or two. Death is rare but can occur in the elderly, infants or severely debilitated persons.” 

Consumption of L. monocytogenes can result in Listeriosis, another potentially fatal foodborne-related disease. Listeria is readily transmitted through ready-to-eat meat and poultry products, such as those used in salads, sandwiches and wraps. Similar to Staphylococcus, Listeria resists historical microbial growth inhibitors such as salt and acidity. It also readily grows at refrigerated temperatures; and although freezing temperatures will stop its growth, this hearty bacterium remains viable.

Proper cooking and reheating effectively controls Listeria; however, ready-to-eat meats do not require further cooking prior to consumption. Further, with Listeria omnipresent in the environment, ready-to-eat meats are very susceptible to contamination, as they are repeatedly exposed to microorganisms during slicing, dicing and meal assembly.

Because the presence of Listeria does not change the taste or smell of the food, it goes undetected. This makes it imperative that manufacturers of these products take all possible precautions to ensure food safety.

Commissary operators should consider sourcing ready-to-eat meats formulated with food safety ingredients. This includes U.S. Department of Agriculture-Food Safety and Inspection Service-approved antimicrobials, such as organic acids and bacteriocins, as well as vinegar-based ingredients and citrus oils (e.g., lemon or lime juice).

Eliminating Risk

Back to the four rules for safe food preparation and handling, commissary operators can go down to three when they only allow fully cooked meat, poultry and fish into the facility. Risks are further reduced when fruits and vegetables come already cleaned and sanitized.

Simply, the ingredients—the meal components—should be ready for assembly, with no processing involved. This reduces the presence of unwanted spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms in the facility, and thus, improves food safety.

With more involved centralized production facilities, cooking, baking and washing should take place at a nearby commercial kitchen or manufacturing facility designed for the preparation of that specific product. Proximity is important as these are fresh foods with limited shelf life.

For example, chicken breast intended for topping a Caesar salad can be procured in various ways. From a food safety perspective, the riskiest approach is to bring raw chicken into the kitchen, cook it and then dice it. Even bringing in fully cooked chicken breasts and dicing them on site increases exposure to the environment and potential for contamination. Ideally fully cooked chicken breast cubes are delivered in a package size that is easy and quick to work with. You don’t want too large of a package sitting out for an excessive length of time, which warms the product and exposes is to environment contaminants.

“Staging assembly is critical to keeping these perishable foods at safe temperatures,” said Dr. Schaffner. “Colder is always better, and this is true through the entire supply chain.”

In addition to positively improving food safety, sourcing ready-for-assembly meal components, as compared to cooking and preparing the components in nearby facilities, improves quality control, as incoming foods will have been produced and inspected by the supplier. These products must meet established standards in terms of appearance, color, taste and texture. This in turn enables the commissary operator to produce consistent meals.

For example, when pasta used in Asian noodle salads arrives cooked and ready for assembly, the operator should be assured by the supplier that the noodles are the ideal consistency for the specified shelf life.

“Water activity is also a consideration, and suppliers can acidify cooked pastas and rice to inhibit or slow pathogen growth,” said Dr. Schaffner. 

In an ideal commissary environment, the tomatoes come sliced, the sandwich lettuce leaves are perfectly sized and the parsley garnish is sprigged. But, sometimes knife and cutting board is required. Even though these ingredients should be cleaned and sanitized before handling, therefore posing minimal microbial concerns, best practices include using different cutting boards and knives for each food item.

Color-coded boards and utensils help eliminate the risk of cross-contamination. They also allow for traceability in case a food safety concern arises. Boards should be durable with smooth finishes to prevent dirt and microorganisms from hiding in cuts and grooves. Knives should have durable handles that do not chip, crack or peel.

“Breakdown the slicer and clean it out a couple of times a day,” said Dr. Schaffner. “Wear gloves. Change your gloves when you change the food you are handling.”

Source high-quality foods from a reputable supplier. And never, ever forget good sanitary practices and time-temperature control.

Four Rules to Ensure Food Safety

There are four basic rules to safe food preparation and handling.

Clean. Microorganisms spread quickly, from hands to counters to conveyors to foods. Frequent hand washing with warm water and soap—before and after food handling--and using proven sanitizing agents to clean work surfaces and utensils, such as knives and measuring cups, reduces the chance of microbial contamination.

Separate. Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood, and their juices away from ready-to-eat foods. The same goes for unwashed produce. Also, keep known allergens separated and labeled. 

Cook. Properly cooking or pasteurizing animal proteins, as well animal products such as eggs and milk, destroys dangerous microorganisms. Use a food thermometer or approved time-temperature measuring device to ensure adequate heating.

Chill. Most microorganisms grow fastest at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees F. Chilling food properly and ensuring that refrigerators maintain a constant temperature below 40 degrees F is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Remember, this is proper refrigeration through the entire supply chain, from receiving ingredients to when the finished food is purchased by consumer.