Operations – Salmonella

By Peter Thor, President, Bellissimo Foods

Aside from the obvious human concern for food safety, publicity resulting from food safety citations or food borne illness can be business killers!  Public safety should always be a priority, but in reality most restaurants do only what is required.  Restaurateurs must face the fact that the business you’ve built can be wiped out by major problem.

As this is being written, the Foster Farms chicken company is facing disaster due to salmonella contamination which has caused more than 300 people to be sick.  Think of how easy it could happen for contaminated food to cross-contaminate your kitchen and make your customers sick.  Food products which may carry salmonella include eggs, poultry, pork, beef, unpasteurized dairy products, cheese, raw grains, fruits and vegetables, spices, and nuts.

One example of new regulations are going to require much more strict application of sanitary gloves for all food workers; even requiring changing gloves every time one enters or leaves the kitchen.  The same should be true even moving from one prep area to the next.  This actually seems quite sensible, but observation tells us few actually practice this.

We’ve discussed before the importance of food handling procedures and focused on raw poultry.  It is interesting to note, however, that fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and even dried spices can contain salmonella bacteria.  Because restaurants source ingredients rather than manufacture them, your best defense is to have strict food handling and preparation policies and procedures in place.  We must recognize that any slip in food handling or sanitizing procedures could have catastrophic consequences, fair or not!  Estimates areas high as 15% of spices have some level of salmonella.

So what exactly is salmonella?  It is a bacteria in a bacteria group called coliforms.  It is one of the leading causes of food borne illness worldwide, with approximately 40,000 cases reported each year in the United States.  As you might expect, the problem is much worse in under-developed countries without modern sanitation systems.  The bacteria is a common pathogen in livestock, causing infections that can be passed to humans.  Also found in feces of rodents, birds, turtles, lizards, snakes, and domestic animals.  As a result, the bacteria is easy to contaminate everything from raw meat to fresh vegetables and anything washed with contaminated water.

Sickness can be serious, even causing death in some circumstances; so the bacteria and steps to prevent contamination must be taken seriously.  Cooked, ready to eat foods can be cross-contaminated with salmonella, as the bacteria has been found in peanut butter, breakfast cereal, dry dog food and treats, fermented meats, milk powder, and ice cream.

The good news is that salmonella can generally be controlled by proper food storage, sanitation, and cooking.  Salmonella bacteria grow in moist ad moderate temperature environments, usually 45-110 F.  Cooking heat kills salmonella.  Freezing does not.  One of the reasons which spices are problematic, is that they are often stored in the kitchen in a warm and moist environment.  Spices, like flour, grains and other dried products, should be stored in a cool, dry room until used.  Other food products must be refrigerated or frozen as required.

Critical procedures to control salmonella include:

  • Hand washing and changing gloves whenever preparing food, touching non-food, or changing activity
  • Store raw and cooked foods in separate places at recommended temperatures
  • Never store raw foods above cooked foods
  • Wash raw fruits and vegetables before cutting or consuming
  • Sanitize and keep separate prep areas for raw meat and poultry
  • Regularly clean and sanitize all utensils and work surfaces
  • Towels, aprons, and clothing must not touch prep and work surfaces
  • Cook all foods to recommended internal temperatures

It is clear that salmonella and other similar bacteria can result in an economic as well as physical problem.  While you may not be the initial cause of the problem, failure to follow basic steps can result in disaster, and it affects everyone.  Just consider how the public now views chicken, not just Foster Farms.  At Delco Foods they care about not only the independent restaurants, but also the broader industry.  It is all of our responsibility, and certainly in all of our interest, to keep the restaurant industry trusted by the public; not only for the beautiful food we serve, but for the health and integrity of our products.

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