You prolly have heard or read about celebrations for Earth Day which was celebrated this last weekend. Yet for many – especially farmers (those folks who grow/produce food and fiber we take for granted) every day is Earth Day. A day designated to recognize Agriculture – National Ag Day – was March 21st. Interestingly, a recent survey by The Center for Food Integrity found that less than half of US consumers (42%) strongly agreed with this statement “U.S. farmers take good care of the environment” and more than half – 51 percent – were ambivalent. Some of this stems from size of the farm: big is bad is the view of many. Certainly there is trust in knowing the person involved with the food production, and that trust encourages a perception that smaller farms are not as profit driven as larger farms (the faceless corporate entity). Knowledge of how food is produced is another burning question for consumers. A recently published study from University of Illinois reported in Feedstuffs Foodlinks found the three top attributes by consumers when purchasing beef, chicken, milk and eggs were “no growth hormones”, “non-GMO” and “humanely raised,” although there were differences in importance based on product type. So what do these terms mean? Ask 10 people and you may get 10 different answers. While there are some certification programs, there are also differences of opinion as to what these terms mean. Although the “organic” attribute was ranked lowest in importance for consumers, for many, purchasing certified organic products is how they ensure a product is GMO free. As another Earth Day ends, it behooves all of us to make mindful food purchases and part of that is understanding what terms on the label mean. Your government has definitions for use of many terms – see USDA’s National Agriculture Library for more information. More important though, we should recognize that farmers work hard under uncertain and changing conditions of weather, demand, markets, and policies to produce the food we are fortunate to have available for purchase, and thank them for their efforts.
In case you noticed, there hasn’t been a SafeFood blog for a few weeks as I was out on vacation (had a great time BTW). It was amusing (and at times annoying) to see the sites around the selfie sticks and outstretched arms of people documenting their experiences. Digital photography certainly makes it easy and inexpensive to do so, and social media makes it easy and inexpensive to share these validations (I was there!) with the world. So, being the food safety nerd that I am, began to wonder why it is so hard for retail foodservices to document completion of tasks such as checking of food temperatures or sanitizer concentrations? Documentation is as easy as initialing a log but still seems to be a challenge to obtain complete and accurate records. Is moving to a selfie of task completion the answer?
We are in the fifth week of Lent and Friday Fish Fries are going strong here in the Midwest. It is a Catholic tradition to abstain from meat and meat products on Fridays – hence restaurant specials (All you can eat fried cod!) or church events. In fact, according to Wikipedia, McDonald’s addition of the Filet-o-fish menu item occurred during Lent as one franchise tried to recapture lost hamburger sales. Many churches host Fish Fries as fundraising events or simply as a venue to gather the community. Some church events are quite successful with reports of one parish serving 800 people in one night and another a meal every 8 seconds. Of course, these large events are successful due to having the right equipment (40 fryers and 5 commercial ovens) and volunteer labor. Having a well-organized plan and then working the plan is a key ingredient in the recipe for success. Another critical item is communicating to the volunteers the ins and outs of food safety. It is more than simply washing hands when entering the kitchen or wearing and apron and gloves. Ideally the person in charge has attended training about health and hygiene practices to minimize risk of contamination, temperature controls of food, and proper cleaning and sanitizing of surfaces that touch food. Over the years, our team has developed many downloadable resources that can be freely used by volunteers at Fish Fries or other community food based events. Having volunteers trained will reduce liability risks – and maybe lower insurance premiums! Check out these resources at www.iowafoodsafety.org
I read an article about hot recruitment taking place within fast food and casual dining segments due to high annual job turnover rates of over 100%! That means every staff member has been working at your fave eating away from home spot for less than a year. While the “I just started here” used to be a common ploy by wait staff to elicit sympathy from customers (been there, done that) it could back fire with SafeFood customers thinking about potential for mistakes. Those who eat out a lot might begin to wonder why someone is always new –a reverse of “it’s not you (or the restaurant), it’s me”, and begin to dine elsewhere. Working when most others play is perhaps a big part of the turnover recipe but another ingredient is that food away from home is an ever expanding market. Think about all the places where quick or casual foods are served. The C-Store biz is getting into foodservice in a big way too. The article by Leslie Patton for Bloomberg News mentioned high stakes recruiting for experienced managers and staff – in some states (those without living wage policies) hourly rates for line staff are over $9 an hour. True, hard to support a family on that but currently above minimum wage with lots of opportunities to advance. And certainly a good return for the high schooler saving for prom (or a car, or college, or entertainment). Let’s hope part of the experience quotient includes attention to food safety; with all the newbies each year, there is a lot of potential for mistakes that could lead to a food borne illness outbreak. Experienced managers should have the skills to communicate best safe food handling practices to their staff in a way that the information is understood and acted upon, monitor workers are walking the talk, and take action when they don’t.
Those in charge of places where food is prepared and served to others know the challenge in getting everyone to “walk the talk”. Former students frequently lament the difficulty in getting team members on board – they know what to do but obviously can’t do it all so they have to work through others. Welcome to the world of management! Policies and procedures may be in place – but don’t get practiced. On the job peer training is pretty common and while there are many good aspects of this approach, it can mean new hires get the “low down” on how we really do things here, never mind that pesky manual. So, what is a manager to do? Some try to monitor compliance through use of technology (and for some things this works, such as handwashing monitors). Others go old school with MBWA (management by walking around) with hope of correcting improper practices before there is an outbreak on their watch. Ideally, a combination of all of these practices (standard operating procedures, aka SOP, peer influences, and good leadership) contribute to a culture of food safety. The role of peers, the work tribe, is critical. While diversity is touted for its many benefits, there aren’t many alternate ways to ensure safety of food that is prepared and served to others. The organization’s employment tribe should include only those who accept that the way we do things here is the way things should be done. Safe food handling practices are not very complicated – it really is a matter of common sense, and a willingness to take the time to follow. A free webinar on Food Safety Culture will be offered Wednesday March 8th courtesy of FoodHandler as part of their SafeBites®webinar series. Food safety expert and former member of the Iowa State University Food Safety Project Team Dr. Jeannie Sneed will present.
A few weeks ago my colleague Rachel blogged about a study of the food safety practices followed (or not) by TV chefs. In that study, compliance with Food Code recommendations was seen at a rate of about 30%. I thought of that as I watched the movie Burnt this weekend. This is a show about a celebrity chef launching a comeback; Bradley Cooper stars (ok, I buried the lead!). There are wonderful scenes of food preparation showcasing the art of the culinary world. Every ingredient is beautiful – free of any blemishes and very colorful. Rightly so, as the chef calls for PERFECTION with ingredients arranged just so on the plates. Nothing less than PERFECTION is accepted. The plates for the unsuspecting guests indeed looked beautiful – unsuspecting diners because not ONCE was there any showing of handwashing or glove use (much needed when a common tasting technique is using a finger as a dipping spoon!). Nope, the rule seems to be Bare Hand Contact Only rather than NO Bare Hand Contact with foods ready to eat. Further, there were scenes with the chefs taking a smoking break on the dock (by the dumpster) in their culinary garb (yep, the same coat or apron worn) and earrings and unrestrained hair (including Mr. Cooper’s beard). Sanitation practices aside, the amount of up close and personal with the food involved lots of hunching over the counter and cross reaching of garnishes to perfect the plate – I felt my back ache just watching this! Are ergonomics not part of culinary schools? Or time-motion economy practices? Some celebrity chefs have written about the physical toll the work takes on them. If this movie depicts the real world, then no wonder! After watching this movie (and there have been a few others) I can appreciate the art part of culinary arts, but am convinced some scientific applications to the work place could result in a win-win. Consider this an appeal to those bringing the chef experience to us couch potatoes – can we include some sanitation please?
My sister told me how one of her co-workers was very upset when her son’s school shut down his entrepreneurial food sales to classmates and Mom had to go bail him out. Apparently, there is mention that this is a no-no in the Student Handbook, which all students are expected to read and sign a statement to that effect. So, what is wrong with this? Is this a case of school administrators stifling the entrepreneurial spirit of a student? Or is school administration protecting students? With food, issues pertain to product ID and known source, handling practices, temperature controls, and protection from contamination. In this case, the snacks were unwrapped candies the wannabe entrepreneur had repacked into zip lock baggies. While the original source was legit and buyers assumed the packaged item indeed was candy (based on seller’s word as there were no labels), inquiring minds might wonder what exactly was in the package and how and where the candy was transferred. No worries about temp controls as a shelf stable food, but was there any chance the food could have become contaminated, intentionally or unintentionally? What about food allergens? Not to mention district Wellness policies and whether the snacks met the Smart Snacks guidelines from USDA. It is good to see entrepreneurism flourish, but like so many great ideas, the devil is in the details. Hopefully, the budding salesman learned doing his homework would have been instructional. Maybe there is a lesson here for everyone to be mindful of what foods we purchase and the source!
It’s here – it’s here! Or it will be on Sunday – that’s right the big food-beer-football-something gate fest (aka the Super Bowl) kicks off. I was in Houston over the holiday break and prep plans were in full swing. Restaurants and bars were hiring for extra help and a beautification scheme was underway. Once teams were determined, party givers ramped into warp speed creating fan based snacks for their crowds. Or maybe you aren’t a football fan but tune in for the commercials. Regardless of motivation, here are a few tips to be sure no one is ill on Monday – at least not ill from the food! Consider these game strategies:
Offensive Play: Informally set the rules of the game by staging the wishbone offense with where and how of food and drink service spread out. Keep a work zone with uncooked foods separate from those ready to eat. A beverage station positioned away from the food will avoid blindside tackles. Rollout a staging area (think of it as your locker room) for plating food onto service ware. Have a designated area for guests to place soiled dish and glass ware (consider disposables if a large crowd). Getting the traffic patterns established early in the game will be your first down!
Play the clock: Each quarter, refresh serving dishes – this keeps snacks looking attractive and avoids time temperature abuse. So, rather than setting out at beginning of party ALL the guacamole that has been made, break it into four batches and bring it on at the start of each quarter. You may miss a few minutes of the game but not the commercials!
Hold the line: Plan on a defense strategy from contamination. There is always that guy (or girl) who doesn’t follow basic hygiene social norms – such as the double dipper. Provide guidance (and defend others) with having serving utensils prominently displayed (and a few in “secondary position” close by in case they get dropped or that guy/gal also uses it as a tasting tool).
A new USDA report making headlines found the most frequently appearing item in grocery baskets was – wait for it – pop (yeah, that is the Midwest coming through, you may know it as soda or soft drinks). Maybe not a big surprise but the article led with finding this was the most frequent item when purchases were made with food stamps as part of the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). But, let’s go beyond the headlines – sweetened beverages were the second most frequent appearing item in grocery baskets paid for with cash or credit (non-SNAP participants). Data was from monthly reports shared by one national grocery chain so there is possibility that shoppers at that store don’t mirror the population. Plus, the complexity of the data (there were 26 million households involved!) makes it difficult to analyze. The full report explains the methods used if up for some light reading! Questions of how tax dollars should be spent aside, perhaps the bigger headline is that all Americans are buying (and presumably consuming) too much pop. On the upside, it is certainly a shelf stable item – don’t think any outbreaks traced back to soda. But in terms of contributing to general health, and ability to ward off infections (food or other) healthier choices in the shopping cart might be better!
Media was full of trends articles at the New Year – I am just a little late to the topic! My colleague Marlene Geiger blogged about some trends just last week on Answer Line – but we aren’t the only ones. At that makes sense as in our nation of foodies, food was part of many identified “new things”. Interest in veggies continues with increases in these as center of plate features or coupled with cheese boards. A new item on the market is a plant based burger that bleeds, just like meat. Because of interest in food waste, new food items from previously unused byproducts are being developed; whey is one ingredient in some new menu items such as a probiotic drink or vegan mayonnaise from leftover liquid after cooking of chickpeas. Canned fish (think old school tuna fish) is making way for tinned fish – apparently specialty fish items like imported white tuna belly in olive oil are available in trendy bars and restaurants. Mobile food trucks are so “last year” with “pop up restaurants” now taking center stage. Sandwiches and wraps are yielding to the bowl – partly driven by gluten free rage and low carb diets. The bowl lends itself to multiple cuisines as well. Eggs and other typical breakfast foods are now anytime anywhere – McDonalds opened the door with all day breakfasts – but now egg pot pie may catch on. Classic French Cuisine apparently is on the rise with new restaurants featuring old guard French dishes. But even the concept of a restaurant is changing with food delivery apps, home cooked meal kits, online delivery, and home chefs to name a few of recent restaurant innovations. Food entrepreneurship itself is trending! Some of these trends are offshoots of existing practices. A closed loop, 360° systems of food production have been part of sustainable food mantras for years. For instance, byproducts are already used in the food cycle – like orange peels from the making of orange juice used as part of cattle rations. Recognition of the value of these practices among all stakeholders helps close the communication loop. I am sure there are other trends in the making. This should be an interesting year with compliance dates for new food regs and a new political administration. SafeFood in 2017!