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Safe food handling practices for food establishments

At each step in the flow of food through a food service establishment, there are general food safety procedures that should be followed. These procedures will help prevent mishandling and contamination of food, and will reduce the risk of foodborne illness at your establishment. The following are basic procedures to help keep you safe.

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All foods served in a food service establishment must come from an approved source. Food service establishments should work with their suppliers to ensure the foods they are using meet the food safety standards.

Temperature and time are the two most important factors to control. Foods need to be received and stored as soon as possible.The staff of the food service establishment should be checking for temperatures and conditions of incoming foods.

All refrigerated foods should be put away quickly to prevent time and temperature abuse. Frozen foods should not have large ice crystals, be discolored or dried-out. Canned goods should have labels, no swelling and flawed seams, rust or dents. Never accept home-canned foods because of the risk of botulism.

All canned foods and dry ingredients are stored in a designated area. Foods should not be stored in areas such as restrooms, furnace rooms, stairwells or hallways. Foods should be stored off the floor and in closed containers.

Storage areas should be well ventilated and pest free. Dry storage areas can become a food source for rodent and insects. Keeping containers closed, in sound condition and off the floor help to keep the storage area pest free. Stock rotation is a good management practice.

Foods and chemicals need to be stored separately. Chemicals should be stored below and away from foods to prevent chemical contamination.

Cold holding is storing food under refrigeration at 41°F or below. Refrigeration prevents food from becoming a hazard by slowing the growth of most microbes. Some organisms like Listeria monocytogenes are significantly slowed but not stopped by refrigeration.

The walk-in refrigerator is the major cold storage area in a food service establishment. The temperature of a walk-in refirgerator must be sufficient to adequately hold the food temperature at 41°F or below. The temperature of a walk-in refrigerator is usually colder than 41°F to compensate the opening and closing of doors and demands of adding additional foods for storage and cooling.

Foods need to be stored to prevent contamination. All cooked foods and foods that will receive no further cooking should be stored above other foods. Foods need to be stored to allow enough space for air to circulate around them.

Thawing foods may take several hours or days depending on the size of the food item being thawed. Thawing must be done so that the risk of cross-contamination is reduced, and the time that Time/Temperature Control for Safety Food* is in the temperature danger zone (41°F to 135°F) is kept to minimum.

To thaw food safely:

  • Thaw under refrigeration (41°F or below)
  • Under cold running potable water (safe to drink) of 70ºF or less.
  • In a microwave, then transferred to conventional cooking equipment with no interruption in the process.

Cooking is the thermal heating of foods at sufficient temperature over time to kill microorganisms in the food.

The following are the requirements for the different foods:

  • Beef, fish, seafood, pork and eggs - 145°F ( hold this temperature for 15 seconds)
  • Restructured meat, ground or fabricated meat - 158°F (instantaneous) 
  • Poultry, food containing poultry, stuffed meats or stuffing containing meat, casseroles, containing Time/Temperature Control for Safety (TCS) foods - 165°F (instantaneous)

Cooking requirements are based on the biology of pathogens. Different species of microorganisms have different susceptibilities to heat.

Food characteristics also contribute to the lethality of cooking temperatures. Heat penetrates different foods at different rates. High fat content reduces the lethality of heat. High humidity in the cooking container or the moisture content of the food aid the lethality of heat.

To effectively eliminate pathogens, there are a number of factors to consider: the level of pathogens in the raw product and the initial temperature of the food and the bulk of the food. Another factor to consider, to kill the pathogenic organisms in food, cooking must heat all parts of the food to the required temperatures.

Reheating is the thermal process to heat foods that have been previously cooked and cooled in a food service establishment. Proper reheating can eliminate a major portion of pathogens. For foods that were previously cooked and then cooled at the food establishment:

  • If the food is going to be served immediately, it may be reheated to any temperature.
  • If food is going to be hot held, it must first be heated to 165°F for 15 seconds before being hot held at 135°F or above. Reheating to 165°F must be accomplished quickly (within 2 hours).

The more a food is processed, the greater the risks. When food is held, cooled and reheated, there is an increased risk from contamination caused by personnel, equipment, procedures and other factors. When food is cooked and cooled the product goes through the danger zone (optimal temperature range for microorganisms to grow) several times which also increase the risks.

Once a food is heated or cooked, the food must be maintained at a temperature to limit the growth of bacteria. The correct hot holding temperature is 135°F.

Cooling is a process of removing heat from food quickly enough to prevent microbial growth. One method is done by placing foods in a shallow pan no deeper than 2 inches and placing in a working refrigerator, uncovered, until food has reached 41°F or below.

When time/temperature control for safety (TCS)* foods are is cooled for an extended period, the food is subject to the growth of a variety of pathogenic micro-organisms. Bacteria grow ideally between 70 - 120°F. (The human body temperature falls in this range). The longer the time the food is allowed to be held in this range, the greater the risk of microbial growth. Excessive time for cooling TCS foods has consistently been identified as one of the leading contributing factors to foodborne illness.

Pathogens can be transferred to food from utensils, surfaces (cutting boards), food workers hands, raw meats, poultry, fish and seafood.

Contamination is the presence of disease-causing microorganisms or harmful substances in food. Food can become contaminated at any time and can be contaminated by other foods. To help prevent cross-contamination, raw meats, fish, and poultry must be kept away from cooked and ready-to-eat foods. (i.e. separate cutting boards, separation of duties, preparing vegetables before preparing meats.)

Bare hand contact is not allowed with ready-to-eat foods. Equipment, utensils and food contact surfaces must be washed, rinsed and sanitized.

Temperature is one of the prime factors that control the growth of bacteria in food. Many types of pathogens and spoilage bacteria are prevented from multiplying to significant levels that cause foodborne illness with proper holding practices. All TCS foods* need to be stored cold 41°F and below, or hot 135°F or above.

Preparation procedures should have built in barriers to limit the time TCS foods are in the temperature danger zone (41°F to 135°F). Active preparation of TCS food at room temperature must be limited to 2 hours or less. 

Control measure to ensure foods are out of temperature for limited times include:

  • Refrigerate foods before preparation.
  • Prepare foods not further in advance than necessary.
  • Prepare small batches of food and return them to the refrigerator before cooking and serving.

Develop good serving procedures to protect food and customers.

  • Employees should wash their hands after busing and cleaning tables and after touching any item that can contaminate their hands
  • Do not touch ready-to-eat foods with bare hands. Use a utensil such as a tong, deli tissue or glove.
  • Do not re-serve unwrapped bread, rolls, crackers, salad dressings, or relish trays.
  • Avoid touching the food-contact surfaces of glasses, cups, plates or tableware.

Good personal hygiene of each food service worker is important to good food handling practice. Improper handwashing is known to be the number one cause of foodborne illness in Washington state.

Food service workers should wash their hands by applying soap and using warm water, scrubbing thoroughly, rinsing, and then drying using paper towels or a drying device.

Food service workers must wash:

  • before starting to work
  • during work as necessary to prevent contamination of foods
  • after handling unclean items
  • after handling raw meat, poultry, or seafood
  • after using the restroom (must wash twice, once in restroom and again in kitchen)
  • after eating or smoking

Food service workers are required to use utensils to handle ready-to-eat foods. (i.e. tongs, spoons, tissues, foil, gloves). No bare hand contact of ready-to-eat foods.

Food service workers must maintain a high degree of personal cleanliness and restrain hair as necessary.