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Low Tech But Still The Most Important: Wash Your Hands

March 17, 2015

Front-Cover-Image.jpgThe Foodservice/Hospitality Industry has benefited from advances made in Food Science and Technology.  The more sophisticated and detailed our knowledge of Foodborne illness the better we are able to prevent it.  When a Foodborne Illness Outbreak occurs we are now better able to identify the outbreak and stop it than we have been in the past.   The Foodservice/Hospitality Industry has also benefited from advances and improvements in transportation.  The world has become “flatter” allowing even small or moderate size operations to establish reliable sources of food that originate in distant parts of the world.   Advances in data management allow us to better trace, recall and retrieve items that may be contaminated, adulterated or mislabelled.


Despite advances in Science, Technology, Transportation and Data Management a basic and low tech procedure is still the single most important activity in keeping food safe in the Foodservice/Hospitality Industry: HANDWASHING.  The FDA Food Code states that “Poor personal hygiene” is one of the five major risk factors related to employee behaviours and preparation practices in retail and food service establishment that contribute to Foodborne illness.  The CDC cites hand washing as the single most important means of preventing the spread of infection. 


In fact, HANDWASHING is so basic, so low tech and so “unsexy” that many organizations take it for granted until it has been identified as the source of a Foodborne Illness Outbreak that threatens their existence.


Not long ago I was involved with an upscale, private country club that had voluntarily closed due to the confirmation of dozens of cases of salmonellosis among members and staff.  Salmonellosis is the Foodborne infection caused by the pathogenic (or disease causing) bacteria Salmonella.  Foodborne infection occurs when someone ingests a living microorganism (for example, Salmonella) and it infects the gastrointestinal tract and causes the disease salmonellosis.


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Without any food handlers present and no production taking place I immediately identified a specific food preparation area as the primary source of the outbreak.   How?  Why?  It was obvious from the physical arrangement of the area that proper hand washing was not taking place. The layout was wrong, the equipment was lacking and the proper attitude was absent.  That all changed very quickly but it shouldn’t have taken a major crisis to get the proper system and attitude in place.


The two types of germs that contaminate hands are “Resident” and “Transient” bacteria.  Resident bacteria are normally found on our skin and even contribute to the health of our skins.  Resident bacteria do not cause Foodborne illness.  Transient bacteria are picked up from the environment and transferred to food and food contact surfaces.  Transient bacteria do cause Foodborne illness.  Hand washing procedures in the foodservice operation must be geared to removing transient bacteria from the food handler’s hands in order to help prevent Foodborne illness.  The combination of friction generated when hands are rubbed together during hand washing with soap helps to physically remove much of the transient bacteria on a food handler’s hands.


Everyone involved in a foodservice operation must understand the importance of proper hand washing.  Management and staff must understand the FDA Food Code requires the person in charge (PIC) to be able to demonstrate their knowledge of Foodborne disease prevention.  One required “demonstration of knowledge” is to describe the relationship between the prevention of Foodborne illness and hand washing.


One of the most memorable “demonstrations of knowledge” I ever witnessed did not come from a PIC but from a patron.   For many years our family drove from Chicago, Illinois to Buffalo, Wyoming in early summer to spend time at a Guest Ranch. Each summer our drive time coincided with the annual pilgrimage of members of the Harley Davidson tribe to Sturgis, South Dakota for the legendary Sturgis Rally. My son and I were two of the few non-bikers in Buffalo one afternoon trying to get lunch. A hotel bartender suggested we try a diner on Main Street.  We sat at the counter and watched the “Cook” handle raw chicken, raw ground beef, cooked chicken, sandwich bread and other ready to eat items without doing anything more than wipe his hands on his filthy, bacteria laden apron.  After ten minutes we left, without eating.  We returned to the Hotel Bar, which now had a dozen Harley owners sitting at the bar in all their splendour of leather vests, bandanas, tattoos and piercings.  The bartender saw us in the door and asked how our meal at the diner was.  I responded that we decided not to eat there.  He asked, “Why?” Before I could respond one of the bikers yelled out, “Because the cook never washes his hands!”


If our biker friend can figure it out, so should we.  Hand washing may be a low tech basic procedure but it must be part of a foodservice operation’s food safety culture and must take place on an ongoing basis.  Everyone must share in the responsibility of seeing that it is done when needed and correctly, but it is essential that those in charge ensure it happens.  Your mother was right, don’t be a dope and use the soap – Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.


About the Author

SASheadshotwebsmallSteven Sklare, REHS/RS, CP-FS, LEHP, Steven.Sklare@UL.COM, UL Everclean Strategic Business Development Executive has been working in the Food  Safety Industry for over twenty years providing food safety audits and training, supply chain  risk management, food safety management plan design and pest control services. Contact Steven via LinkedIN.

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