USA: FDA report notes improved food safety in retail food outlets

By David Mitchell

Food safety compliance has improved significantly in fast food restaurants, full-service restaurants, and produce markets and departments, according to a Food and Drug Administration study that monitored more than 800 retail food establishments from 1998-2008.

The study focused on five risk factors: food from unsafe sources; poor personal hygiene; inadequate cooking; improper holding of food (time and temperature); and contaminated food surfaces and equipment.

Despite improvements, the FDA said continued efforts are needed in regard to poor personal hygiene, improper holding of food, and contaminated food surfaces and equipment.

In produce departments and markets, only 59% of employees checked for proper hand washing hygiene met requirements in 1998, but the number jumped to 75% in 2008. Fast food restaurants had a similar jump, from 46% to 61%.

In regard to holding foods at proper temperatures, produce markets and departments improved from 23% in 1998 to 48% in 2008.

As for food surfaces and equipment, produce markets and departments jumped from 37% in 1998 to 63.5% in 2008.

For overall compliance, produce departments and markets improved from 76% to 82%, while fast food restaurants jumped from 74% to 81% and full-service restaurants improved from 60% to 70%.

Meat and poultry markets and departments improved from 81% to 86%. Meat departments showed significant improvements in some areas, including worker hygiene and sanitation of contact surfaces and equipment.

“I thought it was interesting to note that of the areas reported on in the survey, the biggest improvements were noted in the meat and produce departments,” said Bill Pool, manager of agricultural production and research for Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Rochester, N.Y.

“I would suspect that all the attention focused on the meat and produce industries over the past 10 years has had something to do with that.”

The report stressed that the presence of a certified food safety manager was associated with significantly higher compliance levels than in facilities lacking a certified manager.

Compliance in full-service restaurants was 70% with a food safety manager, versus 58% without one. In produce markets, compliance was 86% with a food safety manager, versus 79% without.

“In looking at the data, it is quite clear that having a certified food protection manager on the job makes a difference,” FDA deputy commissioner for foods Michael Taylor said in a news release.

“Some states and localities require certified food protection managers already, and many in the retail industry employ them voluntarily as a matter of good practice. We think it should become common practice.”

Maureen Keith, media relations manager for the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association said during a Dec. 17 interview that having a certified food safety manager is a fairly standard practice in the restaurant industry.

According to the NRA, there are 10 times more foodservice workers trained in food safety than there were just a decade ago.

There are more than 130 million meals served in nearly 1 million restaurant and foodservice locations every day in the U.S., according to the association.

“There is no greater priority for the restaurant industry than food safety,” National Restaurant Association Vice President for Industry Affairs and Food Policy Joan McGlockton said in a statement.

“Training for food safety is critical to the process of improving safe food handling practices.”

Taylor said in the FDA’s release that retail managers, like growers and processors, have a responsibility to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

Pool said some, but not all, of Wegmans’ stores have a designated food safety manager.

“They are not solely focused on the produce department,” he said. “Rather, they look after food safety issues throughout the entire store.”