In 2008, a terrible outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul swept across the United States.
The first cases were reported in April. By the end of the outbreak in August, more than 1,400 people in 43 different states had become ill. Texas had the most reported cases — 559.
The Texas Department of State Health Services partnered with other health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to determine the outbreak’s cause. The investigators traced the outbreak back to jalapeños, serrano peppers, and tomatoes.
In some cases, people were exposed to Salmonella bacteria at home after they bought contaminated produce at a grocery store. In others, they came across it in meals prepared by restaurants.
Although not every outbreak is as bad as the Salmonella Saintpaul one was, foodborne illness — also known as food poisoning — happens all the time. Each year on average, there are approximately 1,300 cases of food poisoning in Texas alone.
How food becomes contaminated
All food follows a process called the “flow of food.” This process starts when the food is being grown or raised and ends with it on someone’s plate. It also includes the steps in between, such as harvesting, processing, distributing, and cooking.
Foodborne pathogens can get on food at any point in the flow of food. Some bacteria, like Escherichia coli, are a natural part of animal intestines, which is why animal products sometimes have it.
In other cases, germs may be carried to food through contaminated irrigation water, fertilizer, or soil.
In still other situations, food becomes contaminated by the people who prepare it. For example, if you don’t wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, you could accidentally spread germs to a customer’s order.
Food poisoning prevention
As a food handler, you have limited control over food items before they enter your workplace. But you play an important role afterward, from receiving deliveries to cooking and serving customer orders to doing your part to keep the establishment clean.
Remember these tips for preventing food poisoning as you go about your daily tasks:
- Tell your manager if you’re feeling sick
- Check that food is in good condition when receiving
- Don’t use or sell recalled food
- Wash your hands frequently and well
- Always cook food to recommended temperatures
- Don’t handle ready-to-eat foods with your bare hands
- Avoid cross-contamination
If you work in Texas or a place with a similar climate, there are two additional things to keep in mind:
- Don’t leave food out too long without temperature control
- Find out about your emergency plan
1. Tell your manager if you’re feeling sick
In 2011, the Journal of Food Protection released a study showing that 12% of servers and food preparers worked while sick with vomiting or diarrhea. A few common reasons food workers went to work sick included the restaurant’s workload, lack of policy requiring workers to report illness, lack of on-call substitutes, and lack of manager experience.
It used to be that going to work while sick was seen as a sign of commitment. But in reality, staying home when you’re sick is the responsible choice. When you go to work sick, you risk sharing what you have with your coworkers and all of the people you serve that day — some of whom might have weaker immune systems than you.
Vomiting and diarrhea are two of the five symptoms you must report to your manager. These symptoms are common signs of contagious foodborne illness. Whether you start feeling sick before your scheduled shift or while you’re at work, tell your manager. Your coworkers and customers will thank you.
2. Check that food is in good condition when receiving
When receiving a delivery, it’s crucial that you give food a quick inspection before accepting it. To ensure you’re not in a hurry, it’s a good idea to schedule deliveries before or after peak hours.
Follow these steps when inspecting a delivery:
- Take the temperatures of all perishable foods. Record the temperatures in a receiving temperature log.
- Look carefully at all of the different foods in the delivery. Do they and their packaging appear to be in good condition? Are there any signs that frozen food thawed during delivery?
If you notice any signs that food might be contaminated, you may have to reject the shipment. See our stand-up training about receiving food deliveries for more information.
3. Don’t use or sell recalled food
A food recall is when a manufacturer or supplier voluntarily removes products from the market. Products get recalled for two main reasons: if the product was mislabeled or if the manufacturer has reason to believe it contains a food safety hazard.
Food recalls happen fairly often, and it’s important to know what they mean for you. As soon as you hear about a new recall, work with your manager and coworkers to check if you have any recalled items in stock. If you do, mark them as recalled and do not use or sell them.
The recall will include information about what to do with recalled items. For example, it may ask you to return or discard the items and to clean and sanitize the areas where they were stored. Depending on company policy, you may also post information about the recall to your customers.
4. Wash your hands frequently and well
Having good hand hygiene is one of the keys to preventing food poisoning. Washing your hands helps keep pathogens from spreading and protects food from contamination.
Always wash your hands in these situations:
- Before putting on or changing gloves
- When switching tasks
- At least once every four hours (of doing the same task)
- Twice after using the bathroom (repeat the soap, scrub, and rinse steps twice before returning to work)
- Anytime you think your hands might have become contaminated
To clean your hands effectively, you should use soap and water and scrub for at least 20 seconds. Learn more in our stand-up training about handwashing.
5. Always cook food to recommended temperatures
This is another key to preventing food poisoning. The FDA has a list of recommended cooking temperatures for perishable foods like meat and other animal products. Cooking food to those temperatures helps kill foodborne bacteria and viruses.
In general, always make sure food reaches the FDA’s recommended temperatures. There are some exceptions, like if your establishment serves raw seafood or rare steak. But eating raw or undercooked animal products carries a greater risk of illness, so if you do have any of those items on your menu, make sure to post a consumer advisory.
6. Don’t handle ready-to-eat foods with your bare hands
Ready-to-eat foods are any kind of food that doesn’t have to be cooked before they’re consumed. For example, fruits and vegetables are typically ready-to-eat foods.
These kinds of foods are especially vulnerable to foodborne germs because they aren’t cooked. If any pathogens are introduced to them during preparation, those germs won’t be killed during cooking. According to the CDC, bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods accounts for almost 30% of all restaurant-associated outbreaks.
Instead of using your bare hands to handle ready-to-eat foods, use gloves, tongs, or deli tissue. Don’t forget to also wash your hands before touching them!
7. Avoid cross-contamination
Cross-contamination occurs anytime food comes into contact with a food safety hazard. There are several types of cross-contamination, including chemical-to-food, food-to-food, and pest-to-food.
You can avoid chemical-to-food and pest-to-food contamination by storing food in a separate location from chemicals and at least 6 inches above the ground. While it’s in storage, make sure to keep food covered.
To prevent food-to-food contamination, keep raw foods away from ready-to-eat foods. Use separate cutting boards and knives to chop raw animal products and food allergens. If you don’t have separate equipment, make sure to clean and sanitize the cutting board and knife between uses.
8. Don’t leave food out too long without temperature control
Depending on what part of the state you’re in, Texas can be hot. No matter where you are, heat is one of the conditions bacteria typically need to grow, making it dangerous to leave food out too long.
Specifically, pathogens thrive in the temperatures between 41°F and 135°F, also known as the Temperature Danger Zone. Germs can multiply to dangerous levels in as little as four hours. If perishable food stays in that zone for four hours or more, not even cooking will make it safe to eat. It must be thrown away.
To be extra safe, the USDA recommends putting food away after two hours. If the food sits in 90°F temperatures or hotter, that timeframe shrinks to one hour.
9. Find out about your emergency plan
Not only can Texas summers get hot, parts of the state are in the United States’ Tornado Alley or experience seasonal thunderstorms and hurricanes.
As you might expect, natural disasters can have a big impact on businesses. Even a smaller-scale emergency like a kitchen fire can cause big problems if you don’t know how to respond.
Ask your manager about the company’s emergency plan for dealing with severe weather and other situations. Among other things, it should include instructions for how to manage the food during the emergency.
For additional tips on food poisoning prevention, check out our online Texas food handlers training. You’ll be amazed by how much you learn in just 40 minutes. When you’re done, you’ll get your Texas food handlers license, which is valid throughout the state for two years.
— Jessica Pettit