Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B
Retail Food Safety Forum

Clean Matters

By Dan Okenu, Ph.D.
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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

One very important question for retail food service businesses is how do consumers determine a safe quality food environment to spend their money and have fun with family and friends? A lot of these choices are made based on consumers’ perceptions of the food safety practices they see in the food service establishment.

When my family and I eat out, food safety is always on our mind, especially for our three young children. So it is for millions of consumers across America who eat out every day, in view of the preponderance of food safety issues in the news and social media nowadays.

One very important question for retail food service businesses is how do consumers determine a safe quality food environment to spend their money and have fun with family and friends? A lot of these choices are made based on consumers’ perceptions of the food safety practices they see in the food service establishment. These customer observations may be made while in the comfort of their cars at drive-throughs, seated in the dining areas browsing over the menu or just standing over the service counter waiting for orders to be taken. Some customers would spy at the back of the house through those swing doors connecting the service area and the kitchen.

Food services with see through open kitchens are a delight to customers’ curiosity on how and where their food is prepared. Yet some pundits suggest that a visit to the restroom with a cursory look at its cleanliness is a close estimation of the establishment’s commitment to cleaning and sanitation, and perhaps, could be extrapolated to its food safety culture in general. Overall, the cleanliness of the food service environment, especially how we clean and what we clean with, as observed or perceived by guests play a pivotal role in determining their different levels of patronage namely first time visits, repeat visits and recommendations to family and friends. Apparently, these cleanliness predictors are associated with return-on-investment.

Figure 1: Dirty Cloth Towel in Dirty “Sanitizer” Solution
Figure 1: Dirty Cloth Towel in Dirty “Sanitizer” Solution

Many of you may have seen those food code compliant red buckets for sanitizer solutions only and the cloth towels for cleaning and sanitizing food contact and non-food contact surfaces in the restaurant. The major problem however is that more often than not, the sanitizer solution is just dirty water without active sanitizing chemicals, and thus cleaning/sanitizing with such a dirty “sanitizer” solution and a dirty cloth towel (see Fig. 1) is simply disgusting to customers. Such practice supports the spread of germs through cross-contamination from one contact surface to the other in the food service and food retail environments.

Other challenges that may be associated with this method of cleaning and sanitizing include the difficulty of preparing sanitizer solution that meets food code sanitizer concentration specification. For Chlorine-based sanitizers, it’s hard to maintain the required working concentration of 50 ppm to100 ppm in an open sanitizer bucket over a four hour period when it must be changed as stipulated by food code. This is because Chlorine dissipates over time in open containers. Moreover, organic debris in the dirty sanitizer solution can deplete free Chlorine in solution and thus lower the sanitizer strength. These factors would inadvertently lead to health inspection infringement and low inspection scores, if the sanitizer strength is tested by local health inspectors. In addition, low inspection scores may be obtained if team members forget to store the wet cloth towel in sanitizer solution when not in use, as required by the food code.

Thus, how we clean and what we clean with, not only matter to our guests but should also concern us as food business owners and food safety professionals. Indeed, such unreliable and unpleasant cleaning method may become the “smoking gun” during cases of customer claims based on foodborne illnesses purported to have been acquired after patronizing a restaurant, as may be authenticated by local health inspectors who tested the sanitizer strength during an inspection. In such instances, businesses will be compelled to settle customer claims without recourse to a more rigorous investigation to clearly identify frivolous claims and also explore the possibility that the foodborne illness may have been acquired from a different location.

Best practices: Where cleaning is a pleasure for your guests

Single use disposable no-rinse cleaning and sanitizing wipe (see Fig. 2) is clearly a better customer-friendly way to clean and sanitize in the food service environment. It is cost-effective, meets food code requirements, easy to dispense and use by team members and with robust aesthetic value that is most appealing to customers. Each wipe is engineered to effectively deliver quaternary ammonium chloride (quat sanitizer) at an efficacy range of 175 ppm to 200 ppm as required by food code. Wipes come with an easy-to-use quat test kit for demonstrating the sanitizer concentration to local health inspectors upon request, since quaternary ammonium chloride is a fairly stable compound that does not require several recurrent testing like Chlorine-based sanitizers. These wipes also contain an appropriate detergent that qualifies as a cleaning reagent and enables the cleaning of surfaces with one side of the wipe and sanitizing with the other side of the same wipe, thus maximizing usage to bring down cost.

Figure 2: No-rinse Cleaning & Sanitizing Wipes
Figure 2: No-rinse Cleaning & Sanitizing Wipes

The quat sanitizer in one of the most popular no-rinse sanitizing wipes brand kills up to 99.999 percent of common foodborne pathogens within 60 seconds of contact. These no-rinse sanitizing wipes are EPA approved for use on food contact surfaces and verified by NSF to meet public health and food safety standards. They are environmentally conscious as they conserve water, have less chemical residue and may be recycled as non-solid state materials.

Interestingly, wipes can be easily dispensed in three different innovative customer-friendly ways. A fancy handheld red bucket with wipe-dispensing compartment and used wipe trash compartment for the front of the house makes cleaning and sanitizing a great pleasure for both guests and team members. Wipes can also be dispensed in front of the house using a specially designed service apron with wipe holding compartment for easy dispensing in an impressive manner that is not disruptive to guests of all age groups in the dining area.

Additionally, there’s a convenient wall mount that can be mounted near the cooking equipment at the back of the house or behind the service counter for easy reach. No-rinse sanitizing wipes may be used throughout the restaurant in buffet & dining rooms, table tops, host/hostess station, counter tops, laminated menus, beverage dispensers, condiment section, take out counters and other similar hard non-porous surfaces in front of the house. These wipes may also be used at the back of the house on food prep tables, counter tops, non-wood cutting boards, ice machines, food carts, exterior surfaces of food mixers, kitchen appliances, steam tables and other similar hard non-porous surfaces.

From my experience, the only down side is that wet wipes are not so effective in cleaning hot cooking equipment with large oil spills. Several wipes will be needed to do a good job while using heat-resistant gloves for hand protection against heat transferred unto the wipes during such cleaning.

Finally, the overall cost of using no-rinse sanitizing wipes comes with a significant cost savings when compared with the unreliable and inelegant method of using dirty cloth towels in red buckets of dirty sanitizer solution. It is evidently a wise business decision to get rid of the red sanitizer buckets and cloth towels, since these no-rinse sanitizing wipes are not only appealing to guests but may improve the bottom line. The use of no-rinse sanitizing wipes is clearly a better customer experience! A chain wide roll-out experience supports the use of independent third party for formal product testing and evaluation, developing SOP, proper team member training and cost-benefit analysis in any particular business environment. This will ensure appropriate use, regulatory compliance and overall benefits accrual when a business embraces these best practices that will ultimately enhance food safety, protect customers and safeguard the business brand while supporting business growth.

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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

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