In honor of National Food Safety Month, FARE is pleased to present a guest post from Betsy Craig, co-founder and CEO of MenuTrinfo®, a partner in FARE’s SafeFARE program.
By Betsy Craig, Co-founder and CEO, MenuTrinfo®
When preparing meals, the potential for cross-contact among dishes should be (and I know is) a concern for all chefs, bakers and family cooks. According to FARE, cross-contact takes place once an allergen from one dish is introduced, inadvertently, to another dish that does not contain that allergen. Cross-contact is dangerous for individuals with food allergies because the slightest trace of an allergen may result in anaphylaxis. To help keep individuals safe, there are simple precautions to follow when preparing and serving meals at home, in a restaurant or in a cafeteria.
An important distinction to remember is the fact that cross-contact and cross-contamination do not refer to the same thing. Cross-contamination focuses on the spread of pathogens and food borne illnesses whereas cross-contact refers to the spread of allergen particles. This difference is important to remember because allergen proteins introduced to a dish via cross-contact cannot be eliminated through cooking. Since allergens cannot be removed with temperature or length of cooking time, extreme care must be taken when preparing an allergen-free meal.
In restaurants, cafeterias and home kitchens, simple practices can be followed to reduce the potential of cross-contact. Dedicating separate cooking and storage spaces for allergen-free items can reduce the danger associated with storing and preparing a variety of foods in one room. If space is limited, use a clean baking sheet to reduce food contacting surfaces that may harbor many hidden allergen particles. Air-tight containers with distinct labels help prevent mix-ups among ingredients and will help avoid particles spreading and settling into foods. Foil can also act as a barrier between foods and surfaces like grills or ovens that may have been exposed to other ingredients with allergens. Designating a separate serving station can also reduce the potential of aerosolized food particles from being shared among prepared foods. Separate, distinct areas for allergen-free food preparation are keys in preventing cross-contact.
In the food service industry, where thousands of meals are prepared every day, there are several areas where cross-contact can occur. From deep-fryers to the spatula handle, food proteins can be hidden throughout the kitchen. Since food particles can linger without being destroyed by heat, it is important to regularly clean and sanitize all kitchen equipment, utensils and surfaces. Kitchen staff should regularly clean all kitchen surfaces during operation. In the front of the house, servers and bussers should work hard to maintain clean and sanitized surfaces. Bussers should properly clean and sanitize booths, tables, menus and counters to help reduce the presence of food particles. Servers who are delivering allergen-free meals should wash their hands just before meal delivery and remain aware of what is contacting the dish. As a team, a restaurant staff can effectively eliminate the chance of cross-contact.
Even when exercising caution, cross-contact can easily occur. Remembering these tips will help to avoid a sneaky food particle from passing undetected to another entrée.
- Set aside designated equipment, work surfaces and ingredients for allergen-free meal prep
- Regularly clean and sanitize dishes, utensils, work surfaces and any other area that is regularly exposed to food
- Always wash your hands and use clean gloves while cooking
- Keep a barrier, such as foil, between the work surface and an allergen-free meal to ensure no residues are exchanged
- If there is any doubt that a dish was contaminated, discard it and start over
Cross-contact can easily occur, even with the best of intentions. To eliminate this risk, try to regularly clean and sanitize surfaces, avoid sharing meal preparation space and remain alert while cooking. In the kitchen, cross-contact can be avoided with the right practices in place.