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Small business know how: how restaurant owners keep their food safe

Keeping food safe should be a top concern for any restaurant owner.

It's every restaurant owner's nightmare: an outbreak of food poisoning among your customers.

According to estimates published in 2011 by the Centers for Disease Control, “each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of food borne diseases.”

Beyond the numbers, of course, are real human beings suffering or even dying as a result of problems with food safety. Keeping food safe should be a top concern for any restaurant owner.

How can restaurants keep their food safe?

In general, the same basic guidelines that have long been preached by food safety experts for individuals in their homes apply equally well – if not more so – to the restaurant environment.  As outlined on the FDA's website, they are:

- Clean
- Separate
- Cook
- Chill


Since the bacteria that cause most foodborne illnesses can survive well on many surfaces and at standard room temperature, keeping surfaces, utensils, hands, and the foods themselves clean is a basic first step in prevention. 

The FDA recommends:

- Wash hands with soap for a minimum of 20 seconds before and after handling food, and any time they may become soiled in the midst of preparing food.

- Wash surfaces and utensils after each use, paying special attention to cutting boards and cutting utensils with rough or marred surfaces where bacteria can hide.  Use a mild bleach solution regularly to wipe down surfaces where food is prepared.

- Wash produce, even if you prepare to peel it, but never wash meat, poultry or eggs.  The act of peeling can transfer bacteria from the outside to the inside of fruits or vegetables, while rinsing or washing meat, eggs or poultry only serves to spread any bacteria in the juices to your sinks or countertops.


Raw meat, poultry, eggs and seafood all can potentially spread bacteria to other ready-to-eat foods even when other precautions are taken.  So, it is best to separate these items from all other foods during storage and prior to preparation.

- Use separate cutting boards for produce than for meat, poultry, seafood or eggs.

- Keep meat products separate from other foods when purchasing and transporting them, even in a grocery cart.

- Keep meat products in separate sealed containers in the refrigerator to prevent leakage of any juices from affecting other stored items.  If you do not intend to use them within 1-2 days, freeze them instead.


Bacteria thrive in the temperature range between 40° and 140° Fahrenheit.  Any bacteria-laden food that is not cooked appropriately beyond that range can bring harmful bacteria to the plate.  To prevent this, the FDA recommends:

- Use a food thermometer.  While many chefs feel they know when a food is “done” by the color and texture, it is very difficult to be absolutely certain of this without verifying the internal temperature with a thermometer.  (Refer to this Minimum Cooking Temperatures chart for food-specific recommendations.)

- Use a slow cooker, chafing dish, or similar item to keep food hot after cooking.  Bacteria can re-establish and thrive incredibly quickly as food cools below 140°.  By keeping the food above that temperature, not only is it safer, it is also more appealing. 

- Use the microwave properly.  Microwave ovens are unable to uniformly warm every part of an item of food during the initial cooking time.  Always allow food to stay in the microwave for the recommended “standing time” to allow the entire dish to thoroughly heat, then check the end result with a food thermometer to confirm it is done.


 - Prepared food should never spend more than 1-2 hours at room temperature, the less the better.  Instead, it should be refrigerated as quickly as possible at 40° or lower.

 - Always freeze or refrigerate food within 1-2 hours of preparation.  Be sure your refrigerator and freezer are organized in such a way to allow free air circulation to all points.

 - Marinate meats in the refrigerator, not at room temperature.  Bacteria can thrive at room temperature, even when coated in an acidic marinade.

 - Do not rely on your eyes or nose to determine when food should be thrown away.  Most bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses do not affect the look, odor or even the taste of infected food.  (Refer to this Maximum Storage Times chart for more food-specific recommendations.)

What else can restaurants do to help?

The Nation's Restaurant News website recently offered “7 Steps to Ensuring Restaurant Food Safety”, an in-depth exploration of advice provided by industry leaders in the restaurant food safety field at the recent Food Safety Symposium held in Denver, Colorado in September.

The seven steps outlined below cover how restaurants can use education, monitoring, effective communication and crisis management principles to effectively keep their customers' safety top of mind:

1. Make food safety training engaging.  By engaging employees with simple, memorable, even entertaining food safety education, restaurants can increase awareness and retention of these serious principles.

2. Speak the language of your audience.  The line cook working the grill is going to relate to food safety guidelines differently from the CEO who is considering allocating budgetary figures to various initiatives, including food safety.  Don't expect the same education to be effective for both of them.

3. Emphasize that food safety is a shared responsibility.  Food safety is not just the responsibility of management, or of the inspectors in charge of monitoring the restaurant's compliance with safety rules.  Every employee should be involved and responsible.

4. Pay attention to product holding temperatures.  While this is part of basic food safety, it is the area where restaurants most often slip up, whether due to inattention or faulty equipment.

5. Practice internal and external crisis-management procedures.  Should an incident occur, the restaurant's response can determine how many people are affected and what the overall impact will be on the restaurant's reputation.

6. Look for the signs of potential problems and act on them.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Vigilant monitoring can eliminate problems before they cause illness.

7. Do the right thing.  Always remember that your customers' health and well-being is the most important consideration when it comes to food safety.

Debbie Williams

About the author

Debbie is a freelance writer for all titles in the Dynamis stable including, and as well as other industry publications.

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