Tuesday, March 22, 2005

HACCP, HACCP, who has the HACCP?

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points that is. HACCP is a program that was adopted by the USDA and other food regulatory agencies in 1997. It gives critical guidelines to help a food manufacturer, processor, restaurant or other food related business to establish a written protocol to ensure food safety and cleanliness down to the microbial level. HACCP is not a mandatory program at this time.

Food. We all love eating, until we eat something that disagrees with us. Was it the food? Was it the flu? Was it the way the food was handled by someone else? Did someone who was ill at the salad bar sneeze on my food? Ick. These are things we as consumers really don't want to think about, however, forewarned is forearmed.

Many restaurants and food processors are beginning to display their HACCP certifications. Large firms, of course, are the first to stand up and be counted with regard to HACCP programs. I noticed one, when we stopped for breakfast one morning before the Fancy Foods Show in San Francisco, displayed in the restaurant's front lobby. Most consumers wouldn't take notice of the certificate of participation. That's why I'm talking about it now.

HACCP is a good thing. It's not just another regulatory entity out to make one's life miserable. Recently, while participating in our bi-annual FDA inspection, the inspector (those guys are authorized to carry guns now!, whole other post later) informed me that HACCP helps establish guideline protocols. The food facility actually sets their standards according to the feasibility, cost and effectiveness for thier establishment. However, he cautioned: "Be careful in setting your standards too high. If you've set a standard, and are in violation of your own standard, and I come in to inspect, you're in violation. Be prudent, but don't make your standards impossible to follow."

What should a consumer expect from the manufacturing/production sector including restaurants. Good food, that is within acceptable hygiene standards, kept warm or cold (depending on the food), on a timely basis. Some restaurants or food establishments will excel, other will be average while others will ignore this all together.

In the book, The Secret Life of Germs, by Philip Tierno Jr., PhD, Dr. Tierno discusses the nature of germs and their effect on us - the buying public. Interestingly enough he says that most of us come in good contact with germs all the time without really being bothered by them. He also says that the occasional bug gives our bodies a way to build up immunities and assist in keeping us healthy. The germs we really want to stay away from have gained some noteriety in the past few years: the dreaded E-coli 0157 and Staphylococcus. Those little, unseen germs can wreak havoc on even the heathiest of people.

So what should you watch for when you purchase food?

1. Certain raw foods: heat kills bacteria. When heat is not present in processing food bacteria is not killed, and there is a risk of increased infection in some people. Raw eggs - we used to love them in Ceasar Salad - some people can still eat them without a problem, however, take note and be prudent. Don't allow small children, pregnant women or people whose immune systems are already at risk due to other illnesses to consume rhese types of food. Raw meats, unpasteurized cheeses and juices can also be problematic.

2. Foods that encounter numerous people in the manufacturing process: Salads containing raw and cooked foods are a good example. Go back to our Ceasar salad: The restaurant's garde manger (salad guy) had to go back to the grill to get the chicken, cooked by someone else, when you made it a 'Chicken' Ceasar Salad. Point being: more than one person handled the food. A garde manger is not the only person who would make this salad, I've seen them for sale at fast food places lately. When you have it trucked in from a distribution center, factor in the refrigeration of the warehouse, the trucking company, the chicken processor and the weather all as contributors to the freshness and stability of this product. Again be prudent.

3. Salad Bars: Main thing to check? Is it cold? If not, take a by and order something else. No need to pick up a cold while at lunch on a nice sunny day. Anything creamy, milky, fish-y or egg-y, must be kept cold!

4. Another contributor to the food safety process: Old foods at home. Not necessarily just in the fridge. Any food that has been around a while, whether canned, frozen, or fresh has a life. It is best to eat it when it is still in a good timeframe. Storing food for emergencies? Store what you eat, eat what you store! Rotate it out so you rarely have anything older than necessary. Of course somethings can be store for quite a long time under the proper storage conditions but admit it, how many of us really have a refrigerated garage that keep foods at a lovely 68 - 72 degrees all the time? And that's just the canned stuff.

5. Last but certainly not least: Personal hygiene. We can prevent a lot of "food related" illnesses if we are mindful of where our hands go and when we really should give 'em a good scrub. What's a good scrub? When you've got them lathered up, sing happy birthday to yourself twice, then rinse. A friend of mine did a study for her graduate program in college: She taped a sign on a stall in the bathroom of a very popular place on campus. She 'hid' in that stall and recorded how many people really washed their hands, and if there was anyone else in the bathroom at the time. Most people, if they were alone in the bathroom, left without scrubbing up. Only when other people were present did most people wash their hands. So next time you want to blame that food professional for the bad food - did YOU wash your hands?

Food safety is simple. Keep it clean, keep it fresh, keep it at the right temperature, and don't introduce pathogens that can cause problems by being careless.