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A K-State food safety expert analyzes a new system, aimed to provide health officials with more tools to trace foodborne illness outbreaks at restaurants and other foodservice entities.
MANHATTAN, Kan. – As people sit in a booth and gaze through the menu at their favorite restaurant, contemplate their orders at a local drive-in or choose a couple of meats to take home from their local deli, they might not take the time to think about the safety of the food they are ordering or how it was prepared.
In a recent announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that more than half of all foodborne illness outbreaks reported each year in the United States are associated with restaurants and delis. To combat this problem, the CDC plans to increase awareness and implement a voluntary system to better equip state and local health departments in surveying and tracking foodborne illness outbreaks.
Two new tools will be provided through the CDC—the National Voluntary Environmental Assessment Information System (NVEAIS) and an interactive e-learning course—that will be available in early 2014.
Who is involved?
Kevin Roberts, associate professor of hospitality and dietetics at Kansas State University, focuses on food safety research in the restaurant and hospitality industry. He said while the new CDC tools are geared toward state and local health officials, the data collected would provide more insight into food safety in the entire foodservice industry.
“It appears that the system the CDC is rolling out looks at all facets of retail foodservice,” Roberts said. “This would be restaurants, delis, cafeterias and schools as well.”
Roberts said state and local municipalities regulate and inspect most restaurants, delis and other retail foodservice providers. While these same inspectors often perform the inspections in schools, the school lunch program is regulated at the federal level. Schools are usually inspected twice per year, while restaurants and related foodservice providers are inspected once.
Schools are the only retail segment that must have a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system in place, Roberts said. HACCP, a food safety system, is mostly used in food production.
How is the new system different from foodservice staff training?
Regardless of the type of foodservice provider, Roberts said many of the food safety concerns derive from three areas—cross-contamination, personal hygiene, and time and temperature control. Helping prevent problems related to these concerns starts by properly training food preparers, servers and other foodservice staff.
“Most states now have a requirement that at least one person in the operation at all times has to be knowledgeable about food safety, but that doesn’t always mean that every state and local municipality has that,” Roberts said.
Popular training programs, such as the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe program, target restaurant managers and employees, for example, while the CDC’s new system is more for health inspectors. This doesn’t mean more people can’t take part in the e-learning course, as it is open to anyone. Roberts said he has already signed up to participate in the course next year.
The data that the CDC collects from the health inspectors through NVEAIS, however, could help in making better training programs for foodservice workers.
“It looks like they are trying to capture the underlying environmental factors and the data to not only trace back outbreaks to the original source, but also help professionals who associate with restaurants make good decisions going forward with training,” Roberts said.
K-State is also currently working on research that looks at the connection between knowledge gained from foodservice staff trainings and actual behavior.
“We’ve done quite a few studies showing that once people go through ServSafe training, it doesn’t necessarily improve their behavior on the job,” Roberts said. “In our department, we’re looking at that knowledge-to-behavior connection and what we can do, whether it be more training or other interventions, to help improve actual behavior once knowledge training has taken place.”
Roberts, who is a former restaurant manager, said consumers could protect themselves from foodborne illnesses when eating out by looking at a particular eatery’s general practices.
“For example, if they go into a deli, are the workers wearing gloves? Do they change those gloves frequently? Are they touching things while wearing gloves, like their hair, face or money?” he said. “Look in the restaurant’s restrooms and see how clean they are. If the general public areas, like the dining areas, are well-kept, that’s a good indication that the kitchen is well-kept.”
Consumers should be aware that while more than half of the reported foodborne illness outbreaks were caused by the retail foodservice industry, many unreported foodborne illness outbreaks occur in the home, Roberts said. More tips about food safety measures in the home are available on K-State’s food safety website and through the K-State Rapid Response Center.