Food Allergy Healthcare Food Manager

What Does Food Safety Mean in the Healthcare Industry?

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Trust20 Contributors • 10 minute read

When you think of food safety, what comes to mind?

For many people, restaurants are the images that first pop up. After all, those places tend to get the most press. We care so much about food safety in restaurants because those are the places where we choose to consume our food.

But food safety is important everywhere and at all times–especially when we don't have a choice. Enter–food safety in healthcare settings.

Chances are, if you or a loved one have been admitted to a hospital or long-term care community, you're there because you need to be–perhaps not necessarily because you want to be. Although a patient might not be able to leave a negative Yelp! review for a hospital, food safety here is still just as important–if not more so–as in other settings where food is served.

The World Health Organization defines food safety as "the assurance that food will not cause harm to the consumer when it is prepared and/or consumed according to its intended use." 

Maintaining food safety in healthcare settings is especially important since most hospital patients are already susceptible to illness, and contaminated food can further compromise their health.

In healthcare, food safety goes beyond basic hygiene practices like washing hands and wearing gloves. It involves meeting regulatory requirements, maintaining strict temperature controls, preventing cross-contamination, and properly storing and handling food.

In this post, we'll take a closer look at what food safety means in healthcare–and how, as a foodservice professional who works in one of these settings, you can make a major difference in the safety and well-being of your patients.

Why is Food Safety Important in Nursing and Other Healthcare Settings?

What are the Most Common Challenges in Food Safety for Healthcare Facilities?

How to Ensure Food Safety in Healthcare Facilities

The Takeaway

Why is Food Safety Important in Nursing and Other Healthcare Settings?

It’s no secret that hospitals and other healthcare communities can harbor all kinds of pathogens. Diseases can quickly spread if caution is not exercised every moment of every day.

Food safety is particularly important within hospitals since their patient populations are at higher risk of developing a foodborne illness. After all, people are eating their meals at a hospital because they’re sick–and we don’t want to make it worse for them.

Patients with weakened immune systems, such as older adults, infants, young children, individuals with chronic diseases, or those undergoing chemotherapy, are especially vulnerable to the dangers of contaminated food.

Hospital foodservice workers must understand the risks associated with foodborne illness and follow strict guidelines on handling, preparing, and storing food.

It's not just hospitals that need to be careful, either. Nursing homes face similar challenges, with a growing number of foodborne illness outbreaks reported here.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 230 foodborne illness outbreaks were reported between 1998 and 2017 in long-term care settings, resulting in 54 deaths and 532 hospitalizations.1 Such outbreaks can be fatal in nursing homes, where residents are often already in frail health.

While it would be great to assume that everybody working in foodservice is doing an adequate job of ensuring everybody stays safe, that's sadly not the cause. In 2018 alone, 33% of nursing homes were cited for violating federal food safety requirements.1

The takeaway? It's time we rethink how we approach food safety in healthcare settings. 

What are the Most Common Challenges in Food Safety for Healthcare Facilities?

Now that we have addressed why food safety in healthcare is important, let's look at some factors that make this a challenge. 

1. Regulation F812

The F812 regulation governs food procurement, storage, preparation, and serving in healthcare communities. 

It is, therefore, not surprising that it is the most frequent citation in healthcare communities during annual audits. 

To overcome the challenges of complying with this regulation, healthcare staff must establish a robust food safety program. This program should include training staff members on food safety practices, regular inspections and audits, and a system for tracking and monitoring food safety incidents. 

Many of the tips outlined later on in this article will help with that, but it's critical to be aware of this regulation and how it applies across different healthcare settings. 

2.  Widespread Outbreaks Among Vulnerable Populations 

Healthcare communities are home to a diverse range of people, including older adults, those with chronic illnesses, and those with weakened immune systems. 

Again, these groups are more vulnerable to foodborne illnesses, and when outbreaks occur, they can be severe.

3. Outsourced Food Services

Outsourcing catering services is also a significant problem healthcare staff may face. However, using an outsourced catering service does not prevent staff from ensuring safe food service still takes place while preparing and serving food to patients. 

Outsourced catering personnel should always be supervised and adequately trained according to the exact location’s policies. Their performances must be reviewed frequently to ensure they operate within the community’s food safety standards.

4. Need to Authenticate Regular Internal Audits 

Periodic internal audits are essential to check the overall hygiene conditions of a healthcare community and maintain food safety standards. 

These regular internal audits will ensure food quality and safety at a larger scale, help monitor key areas of the food handling process, and ensure compliance with the identified safety standards. 

5. Complexity of Menu Choices

One of the major challenges of food safety in healthcare settings is the complexity of menu choices. With various dietary requirements from patients, the kitchen staff may find it challenging to cater to different needs and ensure food safety throughout the process. 

How to Ensure Food Safety in Healthcare Facilities

As someone working in foodservice, your top priority is always ensuring food safety–but when it comes to healthcare, the stakes are even higher.  Here's how to keep everyone safe. 

1. Understand the Specific Regulations Tied to Your Specific Facility Type

First things first: every healthcare community is different, and the specific regulations surrounding safe food handling will vary depending on your unique location and type.

Skilled nursing settings, for example, are subject to different regulations than hospitals or outpatient clinics. 

You and your team must understand your specific spot’s unique requirements and do your best to abide by them consistently. This practice will help you stay in compliance and will also help you ensure that any external auditors or inspectors are satisfied with your food safety practices.

2. Screen All Incoming Food Products for Hazards

Regardless of the type of community you’re working in, or with what population, it’s essential to have a thorough screening process in place for incoming food products. You should conduct visual checks of the products to ensure they’re in good condition and aren’t contaminated with foreign objects. 

You should also have procedures for checking the temperature and quality of perishable products as they arrive, and you should be prepared to reject any products that don’t meet your standards. If you’re unsure whether a particular item is safe for consumption, err on the side of caution and don’t use it.

3. Monitor and Record Food Temperatures

Monitoring and recording food temperatures is one of the most important aspects of ensuring food safety in any setting, but it’s especially critical in healthcare. 

In order to minimize the risk of foodborne illness outbreaks, you should be monitoring not only the temperature of the food you’re serving but also the temperature of any food that’s in storage or being transported. 

You should designate staff members to conduct regular temperature checks and ensure your equipment and thermometers are calibrated correctly. Keep detailed records of these temperature checks so you have a clear record of your food safety practices.

4. Ensure Proper Hand Washing Protocols 

Handwashing is one of the most important things we can do to ensure food safety–yet it's so often overlooked. Studies indicate that the simple act of washing your hands with soap and water can reduce incidents of diarrhea caused by shigella and other foodborne illnesses by up to 35%–an incredibly significant reduction!2

Ensure you have strong protocols in place and proper signage–and enforce these protocols as much as possible. 

5. Understand Common Allergens and Crosscheck Patient Records

Maintain a record of patient allergies and ensure that all employees who handle food understand potential allergens. These records and procedures should outline steps to prevent cross-contamination of food with allergens and procedures for handling food allergies.

6. Keep Staff Food and Drink Out of Patient Care Areas

Staff should be prohibited from bringing food and drinks into patient care areas. This rule applies to employee lunches and beverages and patient food and drink. 

These restrictions help prevent any transfer of germs or bacteria and give patients an added level of comfort in knowing everything is clean and safe.

7. Implement Solid Food Safety Programs Based on HACCP Principles 

One of the key steps that healthcare staff can take to ensure food safety is by implementing solid food safety programs based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) principles.3

These programs help establish and manage the policies and procedures necessary to maintain food safety and provide patients with safe and healthy food.

In addition to regular inspections by local and state regulators, staff should perform daily inspections of the kitchen and all food processing areas. 

8. Make Sure Cooling and Heating Equipment are Operating Properly 

Cooling and heating equipment such as fridges, freezers, ovens, and heat lamps play a crucial role in maintaining food safety. Therefore, it is important to ensure that these equipment pieces are working correctly and regularly maintained. 

Regular checks on temperature recording equipment and storing records may also be necessary to meet FDA regulations.

9. Perform Regular Internal Inspections

Again, regular internal inspections can help identify potential hazards that may be present in the foodservice environment. During inspections, foodservice professionals must pay close attention to the physical condition of the kitchen, food storage areas, and food processing equipment.

The main goal of these inspections should be to identify areas of improvement and make needed changes to improve the overall safety of food production.

10. Treat Healthcare Kitchens Just Like You Would Restaurants 

In restaurants, it is easy to see the impact of your safe food handling and service through your customer interactions. It is just as important–if not more critical–to bring the same amount of empathy and care to food safety in healthcare, even if you aren't always directly interacting with your customers.

We’ve talked about them before, but some of the best practices that carry over include thoroughly washing your hands before handling food, wearing gloves while handling food, and keeping your work areas clean and sanitized (that means no snacking near the food prep area!).

A culture of food safety in the kitchen will also contribute to the safety measures' success–decreasing the risk to your customers overall.

11. Avoid Food Re-Service

Re-serving food may seem like a good way to avoid waste, but it's also a potential hazard for foodborne illnesses. Any food served to patients or residents should not be re-served because the chances of contamination increase the longer the food remains on the plate, and refrigeration cannot eliminate certain pathogens.

12. Purchase Foods Only From Approved Vendors That Follow HACCP Procedures 

By purchasing food only from approved vendors who follow HACCP procedures, you can be sure that the food has been stored and transported safely, reducing the risk of contamination.

13. Keep Emergency or "Disaster" Food Supplies on Hand and Refresh These Often 

In case of an emergency, such as a natural disaster or another unexpected event, it is essential to have emergency food supplies readily available for patients or residents and staff. That process may already be part of your planning and policies, anyway.

However, food safety comes into play in the maintenance of these supplies. These foods should be shelf-stable and non-perishable to ensure they remain safe and prevent contamination. Still, they also need to be inspected often for spoilage, which is another potential healthcare hazard.

14. Perform Traceability Testing

Traceability testing helps ensure that the food served in healthcare communities is safe to eat. The process of traceability testing involves tracking all ingredients, from the point of purchase to the point of service.

By tracking each ingredient's origin along the supply chain, foodservice professionals can identify the source of any foodborne illnesses that may occur. As a result, illnesses can be contained faster, and corrective measures can be taken to prevent future occurrences.

15. Train Staff Thoroughly and Offer Regular Refreshers

Finally, educating your staff on food safety best practices is essential. That includes training on how to handle food properly, how to prevent cross-contamination, and how to maintain a clean and sanitized work area. You should conduct training regularly to ensure staff members are up-to-date on the latest food safety protocols.

Trust20 offers a variety of programs developed by industry and subject matter experts to ensure you and your staff receive the most critical information on food safety practices. From allergy awareness to food handling, these trainings cover everything you need to know in an accessible format. 

The Takeaway

Food safety is not just a responsibility of the foodservice staff alone. It's a culture that should be embraced by everyone working there, including the management and administrative staff. 

The right knowledge can empower everyone to carry out their duties safely. Knowledge is power, and the right training program can help you take your organization to the next level.

At Trust20, we offer training programs that promote a stronger food safety culture by involving all stakeholders–from the upper echelon of the organization all the way to the recently hired line cook.

Check out these programs today–and start building a culture of communication, collaboration, and safe standards ASAP.

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1: Marjie Lundstrom: Nursing home kitchens in 'horrible' condition endanger the elderly, advocates say

2: World Health Organization: Water for Health

3: US Food & Drug Administration: HACCP Principles & Application Guidelines