Protecting your customers and coworkers from the risks of foodborne illnesses is essential to working in the foodservice industry. One of the most critical aspects of your job is ensuring that the food you serve is safe to eat.
Unfortunately, foodborne illnesses are a significant concern in the industry, with millions of cases occurring in the United States alone every year. At the global level, about 600 million, or one in every ten people worldwide, become ill after eating contaminated food.1 On top of that, 420,000 people die from food safety issues every year.
Beyond these sobering statistics, food safety issues lead to a serious loss of income and revenue–often in the form of recalls. While some recalls are related to matters outside of safety (such as misbranding), the vast majority (more than 50%) are due to product contamination or unreported allergens.2
Understanding food safety principles and implementing them correctly at work is the best way to prevent any unfortunate consequences of contaminated foods.
In this guide, we'll dive into the most critical aspects of food safety. We’ll also provide you with practical tips and best practices to keep everyone safe from the risks of contaminated foods.
Here’s a look at what we’ll cover in this article:
What Are the Most Common Risks to Food Safety?
Food safety is an aspect that needs to be taken seriously in the foodservice industry.
The chain involves countless activities threatening food safety, from food storage to preparation. These threats can lead to a foodborne illness outbreak when ignored or improperly handled.
As a foodservice professional, it is your responsibility to identify and manage these risks to ensure that the food served to your customers is safe.
Here are some of the most common risks to be aware of.
One of the biggest risks to food safety is bacteria. These microscopic organisms are everywhere, invisible to the naked eye, and can proliferate quickly under certain conditions, especially in food.
Salmonella is one of the most common foodborne pathogens and can be found in a range of foods, including poultry, meat, eggs, and dairy. The risk of contamination increases when food is not cooked or stored at the right temperature or when it comes into contact with other contaminated foods.
Symptoms of salmonella poisoning include fever, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. In severe cases, it can even lead to death.
Campylobacter is another common bacteria often found in poultry, unpasteurized milk, water, and contaminated produce. The risk of contamination is high when food is not cooked to the correct temperature or cross-contamination has occurred.
Symptoms of Campylobacter poisoning include abdominal pain, diarrhea, and fever. In severe cases, it can also lead to meningitis or blood poisoning.
This bacteria can grow in refrigerated foods such as deli meats, soft cheeses, and smoked fish. The risk of contamination increases when these foods are not stored at the correct temperature.
Symptoms of Listeria poisoning include headaches, nausea, and abdominal pain. In severe cases, it can lead to meningitis or blood poisoning. It’s particularly hazardous to children and pregnant women.
This bacteria is found in seafood, especially shellfish. The risk of contamination increases when seafood is not cooked correctly or comes from contaminated waters.
Symptoms of Vibrio poisoning include diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. In severe cases, it can cause septicemia or life-threatening dehydration.
Viruses are tiny microorganisms that can cause illnesses in people. They cannot live independently but need a host (like a human or animal) to survive and reproduce. The viruses that can be present in food are primarily spread through contamination by fecal matter due to improper hand washing, cross-contamination from raw animal products, or exposure to contaminated water.
So what foods should we be aware of regarding the risk of viruses?
Raw or undercooked meat, poultry, and raw shellfish are at the top of the list. These foods are often associated with bacteria but can also harbor harmful viruses like norovirus, hepatitis A, and rotavirus.
It’s also important to be cautious with fruits and vegetables, as these can be contaminated if they come into contact with contaminated water or soil. Leafy greens and berries are especially prone to being infected by viruses.
The risk of viruses in food increases when you do not correctly adhere to food safety guidelines. You increase the risk for contamination if surfaces are not cleaned and sanitized after coming into contact with raw meat or poultry or if food handlers do not wash their hands properly preparing food.
The side effects of consuming food contaminated with viruses can range from mild to severe.
Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. In more severe cases, viruses like hepatitis A can lead to liver damage and require hospitalization. It’s important to note that people with weakened immune systems, such as young children or people with chronic illnesses, are especially vulnerable to the effects of foodborne illness from viruses.
Parasites are organisms that live in or on another organism and depend on them for survival. They come in many shapes and sizes, from tiny microscopic protozoans to several-centimeter-long worms.
In terms of food safety, the most common parasites to be aware of are those found in raw or undercooked animal products.
Some sources include pork, beef, fish, and game meats. An often-overlooked contaminant is wild berries and mushrooms, which can harbor various types of parasites, especially in areas where animals are present.
The likelihood of parasite contamination increases when animals are exposed to contaminated feed or water sources.
The presence of rodents and insects around food storage and preparation areas could lead to parasite exposure. Maintain strict sanitation practices, such as regularly cleaning equipment and utensils, inspecting food sources, and monitoring storage temperatures, to reduce the risk of infestations.
Consuming parasites can have severe health effects, such as abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.
Depending on the type of parasite ingested, symptoms may take several days to weeks to appear. Some intestinal parasites can also cause severe chronic health problems and even death, especially in individuals with weakened immune systems.
Prions, also known as proteinaceous infectious particles, are misfolded proteins that can cause neurodegenerative diseases in humans, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).
These proteins are highly resistant to traditional disinfection and sterilization methods, seriously threatening food safety.
Prions are commonly found in the nervous tissue of infected animals, including cattle, sheep, and deer, and can be present in meat products that are contaminated during processing.
The risk of prion contamination is increased by factors such as the age and health of the animal, the processing methods used, and the presence of other infectious agents in the environment.
For example, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, is caused by cattle prion contamination and can spread through contaminated feed. While BSE has mainly been eradicated in many countries, it remains a concern in some wild deer populations where chronic wasting disease (CWD) is prevalent.
The side effects of prion exposure in humans can include memory loss, personality changes, and difficulty walking, with symptoms usually appearing months or even years after exposure. In some cases, these effects can be fatal, making it critical for food service professionals to prevent prion contamination–including using proper sourcing and processing methods for meat products and following strict cleaning and sanitation procedures in your operation.
Physical hazards can be found in many types of food, such as fruits, vegetables, meats, and grains. Common hazards include broken glass, metal fragments, plastic or wood pieces, stones, and bones.
Broken glass and metal fragments can contaminate foods processed or packaged in factories. Plastic or wooden pieces may come from the equipment or pallets used for transportation. Stones and bones can be found in fresh produce, such as cherries, olives, and steak.
Several factors may cause or increase the risk of physical hazards in food, such as poor sanitation measures, improper food handling, lack of quality control, and malfunctioning equipment.
For example, if food handlers don't wash their hands frequently, physical contaminants from their hands can get into the food. If the equipment is not maintained regularly, broken parts may fall into the food. If the raw materials are not inspected or sorted correctly, they may contain foreign objects.
The side effects of physical hazards in food can range from minor injuries, such as cuts or bruises, to severe conditions, such as choking, dental damage, or internal bleeding.
While foodborne illnesses caused by bacteria and viruses are well-known threats, another hidden risk often goes unnoticed: allergens.
An allergen is a substance that triggers an unusual immune reaction in some people. Even a tiny amount of an allergen can cause a severe reaction in someone with an allergy.
Allergens can be found in almost any food, but a few major allergens account for about 90% of all food-related allergic reactions: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.
These allergens may be present in various forms, such as ingredients, additives, flavorings, and even cross-contact with other foods. Some common examples of dishes containing allergens are milk-based desserts, bread made with wheat flour, and Asian food containing peanuts or soy sauce. Even sesame is an identified food allergy.
Several factors, such as inadequate cleaning and sanitizing practices, improper storage, food processing errors, and mislabeling, can increase the risk of an allergic reaction. For instance, allergens can cross-contaminate other foods if a kitchen staff member uses the same knife or cutting board to prepare different foods without cleaning and sanitizing them in between.
Likewise, if a supplier mislabels a product or fails to disclose the presence of an allergen, consumers may unknowingly consume it.
The side effects of an allergic reaction can vary from mild to life-threatening. The most common symptoms are skin rashes, itching, hives, and swelling, but anaphylaxis, the most severe type of reaction, can impair breathing, cause a sharp drop in blood pressure, and lead to unconsciousness or death if not treated immediately.
As a professional, you should always take allergic reactions seriously, even if the symptoms seem minor. Follow the proper protocol for handling these emergencies, such as calling an ambulance, administering epinephrine, and seeking medical help.
Chemical hazards can be found in many food products we consume daily, including fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, and processed foods. The use of pesticides, fertilizers, and other agricultural chemicals in the food production process is one of the major causes of chemical contamination.
Similarly, chemicals like mercury and lead found in polluted soil and water can contaminate the fish we consume, leading to a health hazard.
Food contact materials, such as plastic containers and bags, can also contribute to the risk of chemical contamination. When exposed to heat, these materials may contain traces of plastic chemicals that can leach into the food and cause health issues such as endocrine disruption, reproductive problems, and cancer.
Food additives such as colorings, stabilizers, and preservatives are also chemical hazards. These additives may be safe when consumed at recommended levels. However, consuming them in excessive amounts can lead to a range of health problems.
Cleaning agents and pesticides are also common sources of chemical hazards in food. Residues from these chemicals may remain in produce even after it has been washed, leading to potential threats.
Both pest control and household cleaning agents contain toxic chemicals that can find their way into our food, leading to health issues such as nausea, vomiting, respiratory problems, and in severe cases, even death.
What Are Some Preventative Actions You Can Take to Ensure Food Safety?
Food safety is one of the most essential aspects of the foodservice industry. Foodborne illnesses can cause serious health issues and even death for consumers, which could have legal implications for the business. That is why it is vital to maintain food safety in every step, from purchasing and receiving to preparing and serving.
Here are a few major food safety rules, based on the WHO’s “Golden Rules” and regulations from the CDC, that every foodservice professional must follow to protect their customers and business.
Cleanliness is not just about hygiene; it is a critical component of food safety. Ensure your kitchen is spotlessly clean and everyone on the team has received training around safe food handling practices.
All equipment, utensils, and work surfaces must be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized after each use to prevent cross-contamination. Take the time to find a reputable supplier of cleaning products, as low-quality products may not be effective in combating the bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses.
When it comes to food safety, properly separating raw and cooked ingredients to avoid the risk of cross-contamination is vital. Keep raw meats and seafood away from fresh produce and ensure that they are stored separately.
Train your staff and yourself on the signs of spoilage and how to handle ingredients safely to help ensure your food is never compromised–and your customers stay healthy.
Inadequate chilling can lead to bacterial growth, which can cause food poisoning. All raw and cooked ingredients must be stored at the correct temperatures to prevent bacterial growth.
Ensure that your refrigerator or walk-in coolers are calibrated correctly and that you keep tabs on the temperature. Also, make sure that your ingredients are labeled with appropriate use-by dates.
Cooking is not just an art–it is a science. Undercooked food can harbor harmful bacteria that cause illness while overcooking can lead to tough and dry food.
A thermometer is one of the best ways to ensure you have cooked all food to the correct temperature. This tool is excellent for helping you know you’re following the best practices around cooking temperatures!
Wash Your Hands
One of the simplest yet most overlooked elements of food safety is washing your hands. It is vital for food service professionals who handle food all day long. You must always wash your hands before working with food, after using the bathroom, and after handling any contaminants.
Handwashing helps to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria. Post reminder signs in restrooms and kitchen areas to encourage proper hand-washing from everyone in the space.
Store Food Properly
Improper storage can lead to spoilage or foodborne illness. Food handlers should promptly refrigerate all leftovers to minimize bacterial growth. Everyone on the team should understand how to store ingredients in suitable containers, which can keep food from contamination.
When reheating food, it must be cooked to the correct temperature to eliminate all bacteria.
Protect Foods from Pests
Pests such as rodents and insects are a significant threat to food safety. Make sure that you or someone on staff regularly inspect your establishment for pests and that you work with professionals to prevent pest infestations. Have a pest control plan in place in case a problem arises, and always maintain a clean and hygienic kitchen to avoid attracting pests.
Use Safe Water
Water quality has a significant impact on food safety. It’s essential to use safe, clean water in cooking and cleaning. Make sure that professional experts regularly inspect the water source and plumbing systems to ensure that the water is sanitary and safe to use.
Food Safety Regulations
The USDA regulates everything related to food safety in the United States. Their job includes ensuring that food is labeled correctly, announcing recalls when necessary, and monitoring pesticide use to keep it to a minimum.
They enforce more than 20 laws on the country's food supply, and one of these laws is the recently updated Food Safety Modernization Act.
The Food Safety Modernization Act has updated many regulations to make the food supply chain more transparent and proactive. Some of these updates include preventing intentional adulteration of food, requiring better traceability methods, and mandating more frequent inspections of food facilities.
Food safety regulations vary among states; some have additional requirements that may be absent in other states.
For example, California requires restaurants to label all menu items that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
That being said, all states must comply with the federal regulations set in place by the USDA.
Food safety regulations undergo a rigorous process involving input from various stakeholders.
First, a problem is identified, and research is conducted to find the best solution. Once a solution is found, it is proposed as a rule in the Federal Register.
This rule then goes through a public comment period, and changes may be made depending on the feedback received.
Finally, the rule is reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget before being implemented.
Food Safety Standards Across All Settings
Food safety is of utmost importance, no matter where it is being prepared or served.
Although the principles described above are general and applicable to all settings, a few different environments may have even stricter standards to adhere to. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Food safety standards in restaurants are incredibly important, and many regulations are in place to protect consumers.
For starters, there's the issue of cross-contamination, which can easily occur if food handlers do not follow the correct procedures. Some steps to prevent cross-contamination include using separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables, ensuring that surfaces are cleaned and sanitized after each use, and storing food at different temperatures depending on the type of food.
There are also requirements for temperature control, with many jurisdictions requiring regular temperature logs and food handlers confirming food has been stored at the right temperature.
Finally, food safety training is essential for all restaurant staff, with many jurisdictions requiring that at least one person in the restaurant has a food safety certification.
In healthcare settings, food safety standards are just as essential, but the requirements may vary slightly. For example, hospitals and care homes often serve meals to vulnerable populations, so food safety must be a top priority.
Some requirements will be the same as in restaurants, such as ensuring proper temperature control and avoiding cross-contamination.
However, healthcare settings must also consider issues like food allergies, special diets, and the needs of patients with particular medical conditions.
These considerations may mean providing specialized training for kitchen staff, using special equipment or ingredients, or working closely with healthcare providers to meet patient needs.
Food safety is also essential in schools and universities, but the requirements may be slightly different. It will often be similar to a restaurant’s requirements, focusing on temperature control, avoiding cross-contamination, and proper sanitation. The challenge is when you must account for the scale of foodservice in that setting. Schools often have to deal with many more people throughout their service windows, making it challenging.
However, schools may also have specific requirements for nutrition and healthy eating. For example, some districts may require that meals meet specific nutritional benchmarks or utilize locally sourced ingredients.
In childcare facilities, food safety standards are often incredibly strict - as they should be. Children under five carry about 40% of the foodborne disease burden, with more than 125,000 deaths yearly.
The needs of young children mean that staff must take extra precautions to avoid contamination and ensure that they prepare and store food correctly. This often involves handwashing requirements, gloves and hairnets, and regular cleaning and sanitation protocols.
Staff in childcare facilities may also need to receive specialized training around bottle warmers, food preparation for infants, and allergy management.
What Training Should I Take To Prevent Contamination?
In the food industry, preventing contamination is the top priority. As a food service professional, it's essential to make sure that you're trained in food safety so that you can maintain a clean working environment and protect your customers from illnesses.
One of the best training you can take to prevent contamination is the Trust20 Food Handler Certificate Training. Not only will you learn everything you need to know about food safety, but you’ll also be able to meet state and local requirements by earning a certificate from an ANAB-accredited organization.
You’ll learn how to mitigate all the problems described above, including managing food handler health and hygiene, receiving and storing food, preventing cross-contamination, cleaning and sanitizing, and much more.
In addition, Trust20 has a Food Allergy Certificate Training that will teach you how to mitigate concerns related to customers’ food intolerances and allergies. This allergen awareness training will teach you how to prevent cross-contamination with allergens, the basics of food allergies, and how to respond to a crisis. Not only does it cover the common allergens you probably know about, but it also dives into sesame (the most recent addition to “the big nine”) and gives you real-life scenarios to help give you tools to use when you’re interacting with customers.
As a food service professional, maintaining high standards of food safety is critical to the success of your business.
Ensuring that you and everyone you work with understand and adhere to proper food safety practices is essential to preventing foodborne illnesses and protecting everyone who interacts with your establishment.
By following the tips and best practices outlined in this ultimate guide, you can help create a safe environment for you, your customers, and your team.