Kitchen Sanitation: How to Properly Handle Utensils and Food Supply

Handling Utensils and Food Supply in Kitchen Sanitation
Knife Skills

Handling knives in the kitchen requires special care, both for health and safety reasons. Knives should always be kept sharp. Believe it or not, the sharper the blade, the lower the odds of cutting accidents. Think about it: If your blade is dull, you have to exert a lot more pressure on the item being cut. Not only will this crush your tomato or loaf of bread, it also increases the chances the blade will slip off of the intended cutting object and slice through your finger, instead.

Knife sharpening is best done by the chefs who will be using the knives, but either an electric sharpener or sharpening steel may be used to restore the knife edge.

Knives, like other kitchen equipment, need to be washed and sanitized between uses. Never move from cutting raw meat, fish, or poultry to cutting cooked foods or vegetables meant to be served raw without sanitizing the knife.

There are a bewildering variety of knives and knife handles. Before using a knife, make sure the handle has not become loose and wobbly. A knife with a loose blade is dangerous. Many knives have wooden handles. Wood-handled knives should not be allowed to soak submerged in water, nor should they be put in the dishwasher. The prolonged exposure to water may cause the wood fibers to swell and eventually splinter, meaning your knife will have a shorter life. You might also end up getting splinters in your hand.

It is possible to wash plastic-handled knives in a dishwasher, but there are some serious risks involved. The knife will be bounced around during the washing process, which may cause it to bump into glasses and plates. This could dull the blade. Also, the person who unloads the dishwasher may not be expecting a sharp blade in the rack, and they could accidentally slice their hand.

Once knives are clean and sanitized, store them in a knife rack or on a magnetic rack. Do not put them in a drawer or leave them sitting on a counter where they could cause injury or pick up cross-contamination from another source.

Only use kitchen knives for food. Do not open packages, or your mail, or clip your toenails, or cut your hair, with kitchen knives. Of course, this is ridiculous. No one would cut their hair with a kitchen knife. But many people do use paring knives to open boxes, which is completely unsafe and unsanitary, and it would dull the blade.

If you ever happen to drop a knife on the floor, do not try to catch it as it falls -- this is a good way to slice your hand. Just let it fall, making sure to move your feet out of the way. Of course, once it falls on the floor, it will have to be washed and sanitized again. There is no three-second rule in the commercial kitchen (nor should there be one in a residential kitchen).

Cutting board care The debate has raged for years: Which type of cutting board is the least likely to harbor germs? Even after all the talk, there is still no firm answer. Whether your facility uses plastic or wood cutting boards, it is critical to maintain them properly. One advantage to plastic cutting boards is the ability to purchase a range of colors so that you can designate a particular type of food that ought to be always used with a particular color board. For example, red meat would always be cut on a red board. Poultry would always be cut on a yellow board, dairy products on a white board, veggies on green and fish on blue. Cooked foods could also have a designated color. Using a color-coding system helps prevent cross-contamination, but it is still critical to wash each board properly. As discussed in the previous dishwashing section, this means washing, rinsing, and sanitizing (either by heat or chemical sanitizers) between each use.

As cutting boards age, they will get some cuts and nicks from knives. If the gouges become deep, the boards will be difficult to sanitize properly. At this point, the board needs to be replaced.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Kitchen Sanitation course?

When cutting cooked meats, select cutting boards with a rim around the edge to help hold the juices before they leak all over counter tops and floor, not only creating a mess that you will have to clean up, but also increasing the potential for cross-contamination.

Dish handling
To understand how not to handle dishes on which people will eventually eat, one only has to watch an 8-year-old child help unload a dishwasher at home. The child probably has not washed his hands before he comes in, willing to assist for the sake of earning allowance money. Soon, his microbial hands are all over the insides of cups, the eating surface of plates, and the tines of forks. He may as well have put his fingers in the mouths of everyone else who was eating--but this is a family scenario we're describing, so it's all okay, right? We're just happy to have children who unload the dishwasher.

However, in a commercial kitchen, things are different. As mentioned previously, the stakes are so much higher, and so many more people (possibly people whose health is already shaky) are exposed to each worker's germs. Here is a basic list of guidelines for dish handling. Check your state and local requirements, and also be sure to understand your facility's specific procedures.

  • Always wash hands before handling clean dishes.
  • If wearing gloves, either wash them, or put on a clean pair.
  • Do not stack wet dishes; they need to be exposed to air in order to dry properly.
  • Do not let water pool up in the bottom of glasses, bowls or cups.
  • Store glasses and cups upside-down so that they dry properly and dust does not accumulate inside.
  • When handling dishes, be on the lookout for dried-on bits of food or lipstick stains.
  • Do not let your fingers touch parts of the dishes that people will drink or eat out of.
  • Hold cups by the outer surface, not by the rim.
  • Do not put hands inside glasses.
  • Do not dry off dishes with a towel -- let them air dry.
  • Pick up silverware by the stems, not the parts that touch the food.
  • Be particularly careful about coughing and sneezing while handling dishes.
  • If you happen to accidentally cough or sneeze on the clean dishes, make sure they are re-washed.
  • Keep your eye out for any signs of pest infestation around the clean dish storage area.
The food supply

As the U.S. government has begun to take a closer look at all the possible ways terrorists could potentially threaten the United States, scientists and federal agencies have begun to take a closer look at the food supply in this country. Just as people in the past have used medicines, like Tylenol, and vehicles, like airplanes, as weapons, it is possible that an enemy of the state might eventually contaminate our food supply. We have also heard stories of imported food from other countries with different laws about the kinds of chemicals that may be used on foods. and the kinds of food-handling practices in place. In a country with less regulation about food production practices, it is difficult to know exactly how food was grown, harvested, or processed.

What does this mean to you? Whenever you buy a tomato or a pound of ground beef, you are also buying the entire process that went into growing, harvesting, and processing that item of food. If the food was not processed safely -- for example, if a farm worker's hands were contaminated with E. coli when they harvested your spinach, then the spinach you plan to use raw in a spinach salad will also be contaminated.
What can you do? You can definitely spend a lot of time worrying about what happens to food before it reaches your kitchen, but a more productive course of action is to have a set of procedures in place for receiving food, and have a thoughtful program for selecting food suppliers. The company or companies you pick to put food on your table will vary depending on the goals of your establishment. For example, if your facility will feature certified organic produce, then you will probably want to verify that all your suppliers are certified USDA organic growers. If, on the other hand, you prefer to feature locally-grown produce and aren't concerned about whether it's organic, then you will need to make sure your supplier meets your specifications.
Know your supplier Whoever you select as a supplier should specialize in commercial restaurant food supply. They should have a long list of positive references, and management at your firm should verify these references. During the selection process, pay a visit to the distributor's facility. Check it out -- does it meet with your standards for cleanliness and quality? Do a background check by verifying the company's records with the health department. Also, make sure your supplier clearly understands your facility's market and product (Certified organic? Vegetarian? Fast-food? High volume? Small and exclusive?). More reliable suppliers will be able to provide you with more documentation to verify the history and origin of the food you buy. Having this documentation will help you feel more confident that you are serving high-quality, healthy foods to your customers. Providing quality food and being able to document that quality are not cheap processes. As a result, the best suppliers are not always the cheapest, but in this, as in so many other things, sometimes spending a little more money now can save you a thousand headaches later on. In this case, the headaches can include a lawsuit and a closed restaurant due to health code violations.
All food should be inspected before it is accepted at your facility. Have checklists and procedures in place that list everything receiving workers should check for in the shipment. Does the food appear fresh? Does it look and smell good? Is the packaging whole and unbroken? Does it show any signs of insect or rodent infestation (are there fruit flies, nibbled packaging, torn boxes, leaking containers?). Did you get what you asked for and do all the items meet your established requirements? Most importantly, check the temperatures of foods. Check the thermometer in a refrigerated truck. Refrigerated foods should be stored below 41°F. If you can tell the temperature on the truck is warmer than this, do not accept the shipment. Also, ask your supplier to show you a written log of temperatures on the truck. This will tell you how often temps have been checked, and how warm or cold items were kept during travel and storage.
Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Planning

The food industry is continually working to improve safety and quality of product. One way facilities improve is through adopting a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) program (pronouncedhassip). The topic of HACCP could be an entire course in itself, but in the following lesson, we will provide a brief summary of what these programs involve, how they can be beneficial to your business, and what you can do to incorporate HAACP components into your kitchen, even if you are not using full HACCP program. HAACP is a voluntary process, but one that can greatly improve the safety and efficiency of your kitchen. It looks at the whole system of food preparation, instead of individual parts, and seeks to improve the overall process so that the end product, your food, is as safe as possible.

HACCP was developed decades ago as part of the space program. The purpose of the original program was to eliminate or reduce as many risks as possible for astronauts. If food poisoning is unpleasant on earth, imagine what it would be like when stuck in a space capsule orbiting the earth for three days.

One of the ways scientists limited risk was to analyze every step in each of their processes to identify any points where contamination might occur, and then work to minimize the risk at each of those steps. One of the most easily-applicable parts of HACCP is instituting standard operating procedures or SOPs, so that basic job functions are always performed in the same way. If you think about it, a recipe is in SOP itself -- it is a written guideline for preparing a particular food item in exactly the same way each time. This provides for consistent quality and product, which not only enhances safety and reduces risks, but also improves the customer experience.

Here's how you can apply HAACP to your food service applications:

  1. Analyze hazards: Look at the whole process of food preparation in your facility. Think about how foods are received, how meals are prepared, where they are held, and how they are served. Look at the menu. What items on the menu pose a high level of risk? For example, any step in the process that involves holding foods at cold or high temperatures involves some risk: What if the cooler stops working for a period of time and your egg salad gets too warm?
  2. Identify critical control points: Once you have analyzed the process and given thought to all the hazards, identify which steps are absolutely essential to keeping foods safe. Hot or cold storage points are usually critical points.
  3. Establish preventive measures with limits at each point: Once you know the steps in the process where problems are most likely to occur, look for ways to keep problems from happening. Using our temperature control example, make sure to check temperatures often in hot and cold holding areas. Understand what the limits are at these steps: for example, the temperature in the cooler should always be below 41°F. If it ever rises above this acceptable level, then employees should know how to respond.
  4. Establish procedures to monitor the critical control points:How often will you check the temperature in the cooler or on the buffet line? Who is responsible for checking it?
  5. Establish corrective actions: What do employees do when the critical control points are outside their established limits? For example, what if the daily temperature check inside the cooler shows that the cooler has reached 45°F?
  6. Establish procedures to verify that the system is working properly: It's not enough just to trust the thermometer; you have to be sure the thermometer is working accurately, too. Have a plan in place to verify the accuracy of your equipment. For example, you could periodically use two thermometers to check temperatures.
  7. Establish effective record keeping: Use checklists with signatures so that you know each step in the process has been performed.
HACCP team When a facility decides to begin using HACCP, one of the first steps is often assembling an HACCP team. This team would pull together workers from different job functions so that every part of the operation has input into the process, and there is someone available to communicate any changes back to the different parts of the staff.

The HACCP team should definitely include the executive chef, the sous chef, at least one server, and several other experienced members of the staff.

Training Even if your facility does not adopt the full-scale HACCP program, you can adapt many of the principles to facilitate training. Whether you, yourself, are training on a new job function, or you are trying to train a new employee, you can use procedures and checklists to simplify the process. Studies show that people only remember a very small percentage of what they hear. Of that small percentage, most of what they remember is wrong. Having a written copy of verbal instructions provides a handy reference people can refer to later.

Some written tools you can use in training include:

Job descriptions: A job description is the view of your job from 10,000 feet. It does not go into extensive detail, but it lists the basic job functions. In general, a job description should be no more than one page long. Both supervisors and people doing the job should work on writing it, and it should include both standard tasks for that job and a catch-all phrase like "and other duties as assigned." Having a clearly defined job description helps people understand if they are doing everything they are supposed to be doing, and it also helps supervisors perform appraisals, because there is a clearly-defined set of expectations. For a server, a job description might include items like presenting a clean and well-groomed appearance, greeting customers, taking food orders, serving food promptly, and ensuring a positive customer experience.

The job description would not go into great detail about all the specific tasks involved in taking food orders. Detailed explanations are better suited to job breakdowns.

Job breakdowns: Job breakdowns go into more detail about how to perform a specific task. For example, a bartender's job description might include an item like, "clean up at end of shift," but a job breakdown would explain every step involved in cleaning up. It would explain that dusting means picking up and wiping under every liquor bottle on the shelf. It would also explain that "sweeping" means moving the rubber mats on the floor and sweeping under cabinets and sinks. As a more detailed set of instructions, job breakdowns will be longer than job descriptions, but it is a good idea to keep each individual job breakdown (under categories like End of Shift Cleaning or Side Work) to no more than a page.

Checklists: Somewhere between the job description and the job breakdown is the checklist. This is just a simple list, without any kind of how-to detail, of all the jobs that have to be done at certain points in the shift. A bartender's closing checklist would include items like:

  • Last call at 1:30
  • Turn on lights at 1:45
  • Remove drunks at 1:55
  • Lock doors at 2:00
  • Close register
    • Count money
    • Add up credit card receipts
    • Balance money against register report
    • Record discrepancies
  • Complete shift log
  • Empty & sanitize sinks, bar, counters, seats and tables
  • Label and put away leftover garnishes
  • Sweep floor
  • Complete bar order for the next day
  • Lock liquor cabinets
  • Turn in cash at the manager's office
  • Turn off lights
  • Lock up and leave

Workers can split up all the items on the checklist, and then as they are completed, they enter the time of completion and their initials. Having to put their initials next to each item adds an element of accountability, so everyone knows who did what, and when.

Improving documentation in a restaurant not only helps create a more responsible workplace, it also shows the health department that you are serious about doing things the healthy way.