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How to Avoid Food Contamination in Your Restaurant

Food safety is one of the most important issues a restaurant kitchen has to consider. Unsafe handling of food can cause cross-contamination, make customers sick, result in health code violations, and cause unnecessary food waste. The good news is it’s easy to prevent food contamination with proper training and documented processes.

Common food safety issues and how to fix them

1. Improper Cooler/Freezer Temperatures

Coolers or freezers that are too warm allow mold and harmful bacteria to grow. Your cooler should be at or below 40°F and your freezer should be at 0°F. Proper refrigeration and freezing don’t kill bacteria (e.g. botulism, E. coli), but it does prevent it from growing and keeps food safe until it’s time to cook. 

Purchase an inexpensive appliance thermometer to ensure your cooler and freezer are at the right temperatures. Make it a habit to check this once a day; it just takes a quick glance. If something is wrong, you want to catch it quickly to have the best chance of salvaging your products.

That said, never risk making your customers sick. If you see the temperature isn’t right and the food is no longer cold, it’s better to throw it out.

Ben, a manager at a large hospital kitchen, has gone through this before. He said, “The health inspector came and saw the cooler temperature was wrong. I was surprised because we check it at least once a day, but none of us had noticed it yet. We didn’t know how long it had been like that and the food was warm to the touch. The health inspector stayed until we’d disposed of everything in there. Foodborne bacteria can be dangerous, so we couldn’t risk it.”

meat being grilled on fire
Grilling meat on the stove.

2. Unsafe Cooking Temperatures

According to the CDC, “[r]aw foods of animal origin are the most likely to be contaminated, specifically raw or undercooked meat and poultry, raw or lightly cooked eggs, unpasteurized (raw) milk, and raw shellfish.”

The USDA has a helpful Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures chart showing the proper cooking temperatures of different foods to ensure they are safe to eat. Be sure this information is easily available to all kitchen staff, and purchase food thermometers to help cooks (especially newer cooks) know exactly when the food is safe to eat.

Cook all food to these minimum internal temperatures as measured with a food thermometer before removing food from the heat source.

ProductMinimum Internal Temperature & Rest Time
Beef, Pork, Veal & Lamb
Steaks, chops, roasts
145 °F (62.8 °C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes
Ground Meats160 °F (71.1 °C)
Ground Poultry165 °F
Ham, fresh or smoked (uncooked)145 °F (62.8 °C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes
Fully Cooked Ham
(to reheat)
Reheat cooked hams packaged in USDA-inspected plants to 140 °F (60 °C) and all others to 165 °F (73.9 °C).
ProductMinimum Internal Temperature
All Poultry (breasts, whole bird, legs, thighs, wings, ground poultry, giblets, and stuffing)165 °F (73.9 °C)
Eggs160 °F (71.1 °C)
Fish & Shellfish145 °F (62.8 °C)
Leftovers165 °F (73.9 °C)
Casseroles165 °F (73.9 °C)

3. Cross Contamination

Cross food contamination can happen in many ways, but two of the most common include not properly storing food in the cooler and not being mindful of your prep work. 

When storing food in the cooler, it should always be covered to prevent any spills that could cause contamination. It’s also helpful to store meat, seafood, and poultry on the bottom shelf and vegetables at the top. This way, if the chicken your marinating happens to spill, it won’t drip down onto any other food.

Another common way cross-contamination happens is when cooks don’t regularly wash their hands and their cooking surfaces. If a cook breaks down a chicken on a cutting board and then, without washing it, uses that same cutting board to chop up some veggies for a salad, that salad is going to be rife with bacteria. This is easily prevented by frequently washing your hands and sanitizing prep areas and tools.

Never take this issue lightly. A small miss can result in unexcepted outbreaks. Remember the E.coli outbreak due to cross-contamination at a Chipotle store that left over 500+ customers infected? You don’t want that for your restaurant!!

4. Leaving Food Out Too Long

A busy kitchen is chaotic, and it’s not surprising that sometimes a cook may forget about some food they brought out to prep. Make sure all BOH staff understands that food should not be left out for more than two hours. If someone pulls out shrimp to prep and forgets about them for more than two hours, they need to know that it is no longer safe to serve. 

Profit margins are slim for restaurants, and food waste — especially from neglect — is almost a crime. But it’s your responsibility to keep your customers safe from the food you know may be contaminated.

Take the time to talk to your staff. Train them about how to ensure food safety. Remember, people won’t remember 5 good experiences but will definitely remember one bad experience that led to food poisoning. Don’t let things that can be easily managed, ruin your reputation and profits.

Melissa was a server for five years and a cook for one day. Now she writes about food and restaurants. You can reach her at <a href=""></a>.