Determining Your Food Safety Risks & Liabilities

How to Understand and Decrease Your Vulnerability
By Wyman Philbrook | Owner of Philbrook Food & Beverage Consulting And Training

In last month’s column I wrote “We are moving more toward risk-based assessments of food operations across the USA.”  What does this mean for you the manager/operator of a food service establishment? How does a regulatory inspector determine your food operation’s risk? As the Person-in-Charge (PIC) you have to think and use the critical eye of a regulatory inspector (see last month’s article) and determine what your food safety risks are.  Who knows better than you what the challenges of the operation and facilities are? A regulatory inspector uses information supplied to their department and the “snapshot” of visits to your facility by them and previously by others.

An inspector typically will already have a determination about your facility’s risk level based on the following factors:

When a food service operation plans to build or take over a facility there is required information that must be submitted to the regulatory authority. The information is about the type of operation, hours of operation, the menu, the facility, the equipment, management food safety training and any special processes to be used. The permit is issued based on this information so any change before or after the initial submission must be communicated to see if there are additional requirements.

How many meals are you serving each shift, each day and each week. The higher the volume the more of a risk based on the possible effects of a food safety issue.

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Customer Demographics
Are your customers in a high-risk population such as children, elderly or immune-compromised? The first individuals that will be affected are in these groups since their body’s defenses are not as strong to fight off food-borne pathogens. One healthy individual may have digestive issues for a couple days and think of it as a 24 hour “bug” and others are rushed to the hospital. You spend time on demographics for marketing and see your customers on a daily basis so this information is readily available. Healthcare, assisted living and public & private schools are naturally high-risk populations.

Are their menu items that will be served raw or undercooked? Are special processes being used in a facility that increase food safety risk such as fish tanks, smoking or curing for preservation, Reduced Oxygen Packaging (sous-vide, vacuum packaging, etc.) or fermenting. Many processes require a Hazard Analysis critical Control Point (HACCP) plan to show how a food risk is being monitored and controlled.

Inspection History
How has your facility done in past inspections? Did you have major or a large number of minor violations that required a follow-up inspection? Do you have a history over a period of time of multiple visits with less than stellar results or a trend of degrading conditions and practices?  Just passing an inspection should not be the goal. A positive trend in results is indicative of a manager and company that takes food safety seriously and is continually improving their training, facilities and procedures.

Pest Management
Evidence of pest activity during an inspection can indicate an infestation of rodents, cockroaches, birds, flies and fruit flies. Cleanliness, access to food, water and the facility combined with activity will demonstrate whether management’s actions are effective.

The manager needs to determine their facility’s risk level based on the presence or lack of the following:

Food Safety Knowledge
Does the manager, supervisors and all of the food service staff understand food safety and how their particular operational risks need to be controlled? Employees that are using special processes or preparing raw or undercooked items need additional training and guidance. Too often in operations an untrained employee lacking the proper knowledge is training the new hire so bad practices are maintained.

Facilities and Equipment
Older facilities and equipment are harder to clean and maintain and introduce additional risks. Refrigeration and holding equipment are critical to maintain proper temperatures for time-temperature control for safety/ potentially hazardous foods (TCS/PHF). Cleaning and effective pest control, are even more challenging with a building that is 20+ years old. The issuing of a permit requires the company to insure safe food is prepared and served in all operations regardless of their age or specific challenges.

High-Risk Foods
When foods are served raw or undercooked, management needs to do more than just post the disclaimer on their menu.  The proper handling and holding of product and the purchasing from vendors who are inspected by regulatory agencies are critical to providing safe food. The proper documented training of staff who prepare these items or those which use special processes is also management’s responsibility.  An allergen policy and awareness training program need to be in place to address a growing issue in the industry that can have lethal consequences for some of your customers.

Employee Health & Hygiene
All food service operations need to establish written policies & standards for employee hygiene and also train and document their employee exclusion program. Employees need to understand they have a responsibility to inform management when they have symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, fever, jaundice, sore throat with fever and infected wounds/boils on exposed skin. The Food Code and local regulatory laws also outline responsibilities regarding Hepatitis A, E Coli, Norovirus, Salmonella and Shigella symptoms/ exposure. (Use the acronym HENSS for training) Management needs to understand their responsibilities regarding each of these in a food production environment and whether an employee is excluded from the facility or restricted from the food production and service areas. The code and laws are specific regarding notification of regulatory authorities and the required procedures and actions that must be met for the employee to return to normal duties.  Hand washing and the use of gloves in the food production and service areas are essential to prevent the transmission of food-borne pathogens.

All vendors should provide management credible evidence that they have food safety plans and recall systems to insure the safety of product delivered to the facility and a methodology to notify the food service operation when food should be held and not enter production. When establishing or renewing contracts/agreement letters, food safety standards and procedures need to be discussed and documented.

The above areas represent some but not all of the factors regulatory inspectors and food service management use to determine food safety risks. In many areas of the country regulatory authorities are trying a new method, by evaluating both their risk assessments of a food service operation and the operator’s risk-control effectiveness. They can determine which operations need more inspections and on-site time based on overall risk level and controls. An operation that is using a proactive food safety system such as HACCP consistently and effectively is a lower public risk. The benefits of understanding and addressing risk are positive public opinion, less frequent inspections, a useful marketing theme, lower liability insurance rates and safe healthy customers.