The First 10 Minutes of a Visit

What it tells a Food Safety Professional about you and your kitchen.
by Wyman Philbrook

First let me clarify my background. I was in Food & Beverage operations as the PIC (person-in-charge) for nearly thirty years and made the change to focus entirely on food safety for the last six years. Understanding what happens on a daily basis on both sides of an inspection/audit gives me a unique perspective to convey my experience and knowledge.

We are moving more toward risk-based assessments of food operations across the USA, so what your operation indicates in the first minutes of a visit indicates the potential risk to the dining public. Preventing and reducing food safety hazards/risks is a key part of management’s responsibility.

You as a manager will constantly be walking through your kitchen and are either observant of what is happening in your operation or are missing key signs of unsafe conditions. A Food Safety Professional (FSP) is trained to be observant during the limited time they are in your facility and that visit represents a snapshot of how you run your business on a daily basis.

So initially let’s focus on some of the leading indicators and what they tell a FSP.

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An individual with a clipboard makes many people nervous but whether the FSP is from a regulatory agency or is a consultant their goal is the same, to insure the public is safe. If your goal is the same, there is no reason for you or your staff to panic. Lead by example consistently and your staff will feel confident. The pace will noticeably quicken when an “outsider” is walking through with a manager/supervisor and making notes, but panic will not go undetected. How does your staff react when you walk-through your kitchen? It is not a question of intimidation but of respect that you will not walk by a potential risk. Even though you are in your operation daily, your staff should view you as an “outsider” with consistent uncompromising food safety standards. When you walk by everyday and say nothing you instill the reasoning that food safety is only important when the outside professional walks in. When you do have a visitor it is very obvious if your operation is prepared or “caught in the act.”

Cleanliness and organization are obvious signs about how an operation is run, if it is not clean there is no way it can be conducive to sanitary conditions. When a walk-in or reach-in refrigerator is disorganized, cross-contamination, cleanliness and shelf-life cannot be controlled. Initial appearances can be favorable however attention to detail i.e. dirt/filth in corners and between equipment, non-use of gloves, or not scheduling deep cleaning, can indicate the depth of management’s focus on food safety.

The demonstrated knowledge of the Food Code & local regulations by management and staff is apparent immediately in their behaviors. How are the employees handling time-temperature control for safety/ potentially hazardous foods (TCS/PHF) during preparation, storage and service?
Are foods kept separate, handled and cooked correctly? Can the manager explain the systems they have in place to control risks? Food safety knowledge is not proven by a training certificate; it is demonstrated by action and implementation. Most FSPs will ask the manager and staff questions about what they are observing to test the knowledge level and its application to the task.

Is the manager and staff aware of a potential issue in the food establishment or does the FSP have to bring it to their attention. Weak sanitizer strength, improper temperatures, a blocked hand sink or unrefrigerated deliveries indicate that no one is checking and verifying. Does a refrigerator temperature log have the exact same temperature each day for the past month?

A FSP would feel a level of comfort if the PIC stated at the beginning of the visit that the dishwasher rinse cycle was not working correctly and that alternative methods were being used and a repairman had been called. In conjunction with the manager’s knowledge, do they correct issues on the spot during the visit? Inaction could be viewed as indifference or lack of knowledge that there is an issue.

Verbal interaction with the FSP demonstrates your level of knowledge, commitment and understanding about the responsibilities that come with your business license. Treat the FSP with respect and use them as a resource if you want clarification or have questions. A two-way conversation with the common goal of having a safe operation should be the primary result of each visit.

Answer the following truthfully “How would you and your food facility be viewed if I or another Food Safety Professional walked in right now?” Would you feel confidence and pride or would you feel embarrassment and dread? “What kind of a grade would you give your operation if you get up from this article and walk through your kitchen right now?” Does it really deserve a high grade?

When you do your daily walk-through of your facility, always asking yourself these questions and you will have a better operation that will serve safe food and also market your high standards to your customers.