Is there anything worse than sitting down at a restaurant to enjoy a meal only to realize your hand is stuck to a sticky mess on the table and the booth is littered with crumbs? Aside from the fact that this is an unfriendly welcome for any diner, the unsanitary surfaces could cause customers with food allergies to experience an allergic reaction. In order to avoid an unpleasant and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction for diners, it’s important to ensure proper cleaning and sanitizing measures are routinely implemented.
Cleaning is not sanitizing. Cleaning is the process of removing food particles and debris from surfaces. This includes all work surfaces like cutting boards, counters and prep lines as well as utensils, tools, booth seats and tabletops. Just like washing your hands, properly cleaning a surface requires warm, soapy water and a clean cloth to reduce the spread of food particles and potential food allergens. Cleaning can be thought of as the preliminary step to complete before sanitizing can properly occur. Sanitizing helps to reduce the amount of bacteria, germs and food allergen residue that may exist on surfaces and this is most effective on surfaces devoid of debris. Please note, however, that this procedure is different than using commercial hand sanitizers, which do not remove food proteins off of hands.
Sanitizing uses chemical solutions to kill microorganisms and remove food residues that may remain on surfaces hidden from the naked eye. Several components involved in sanitizing should be remembered:
- Be familiar with the safety guidelines for the sanitizing solution. Don’t forget, you are handling powerful chemicals that can be damaging if improperly used.
- Make sure to follow the directions to achieve the most efficient concentration.
- Let sanitizing solutions air dry to help reduce the spreading of particles that may be captured in a dirty used cloth.
In a restaurant, cleaning and sanitizing should occur (way) more often than it does at home. According to the National Restaurant Association, surfaces that are continuously used should be cleaned every four hours but I like to see it done even more frequently than that. In the kitchen, cleaning and sanitizing should be implemented before and after preparing food. Restaurant kitchens that are in constant use should aim to clean and sanitize surfaces every time a new food type is introduced. For example, if chopping an onion follows slicing a chicken breast, the knife, cutting board and chef’s hands must be properly cleaned before the onions can be addressed. Cooking utensils should be cleaned and sanitized each time contamination might have occurred; this is useful to keep in mind when chefs jump from meal to meal during busy nights.
Not only can these practices be applied in restaurants, but you can also use them at home. Regularly cleaning and sanitizing surfaces should occur after every meal as well as during meal preparation before new ingredients are addressed, and especially if an allergen-free meal is being made. At home it is easy to accidentally share utensils and work surfaces among ingredients without being aware of the potential allergens and pathogens that could be traveling between foods. Without proper cleaning and sanitizing practices, there is real potential for cross-contact to occur. Since home kitchens often do not come stocked with manufactured sanitizing solutions like restaurants, try using a solution with a bleach base, i.e., bleach diluted with water, soft scrub with bleach, etc. (remember to always follow safety guidelines). The bleach will help reduce pathogens and help maintain a healthy kitchen free of potentially harmful food residues to keep the entire family safe.
In both restaurants and home kitchens, hands are also an important surface to remember when trying to eliminate cross-contact among foods. Hands should be washed between meals, after touching non-food surfaces like phones or timers and before preparing or delivering allergen-free meals. You know the drill — 20 seconds with a healthy lather of soap and warm water. Clean hands will help keep meals and diners safe.
All restaurant staff members and family cooks should work to ensure proper cleaning and sanitizing procedures are implemented. Having thoroughly trained team members to meet cleaning and sanitizing standards will help reduce cross-contact and unwanted allergen contact.
Learn more about food safety by downloading “Creating a Food Allergy Safety Zone at Home,” a booklet designed to aid families in understanding how to safely prepare food and eliminate cross-contact risks.