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When you’re running a restaurant, food safety is a top priority. Proper food handling and storage, combined with strict cleaning procedures, can prevent cross contamination and reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses.

What is cross contamination?

Food cross contamination happens when unsafe bacteria are transferred from one type of food to another. If someone eats cross-contaminated food that’s not properly cooked, it can cause food poisoning and other health conditions. Typically, contamination happens as a result of incorrect food-handling procedures — chopping raw chicken and vegetables on the same cutting board without cleaning it, for example.

Certain foods present a high risk for cross contamination. Usually, these ingredients come from animals: eggs, raw meat, raw seafood, raw shellfish and unpasteurized milk are common culprits.

As you’re improving food safety in your restaurant, it’s important to be aware of the primary types of cross contamination: food-to-food, people-to-food, and object-to-food. In this context, an object can be any piece of equipment in your kitchen, including knives, utensils, cutting boards, counters or even refrigerator shelves.

Situations that can cause cross contamination include:

  • Failing to wash your hands after handling risky food
  • Failing to wash utensils, equipment, and surfaces
  • Undercooking foods with harmful bacteria
  • Storing food improperly
  • Preparing or storing bacteria-laden food too close to other foods
  • Unsafe food-preservation methods

The importance of a safe kitchen

Cross contamination is a critical public health concern for restaurants and commercial kitchens, particularly when you’re handling raw food. By running a safe kitchen, you can help prevent the health issues that can arise from foodbourne bacteria. Examples include:

  • Raw meat. Raw meat can contain harmful bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella, C. perfringens and yersinia. These substances often cause diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps, but they can also lead to more serious infections that require hospitalization.
  • Raw eggs. Like raw meat, eggs can cross contaminate foods with salmonella, which can cause mild to severe food poisoning.
  • Raw seafood. Fish and shellfish can contain bacteria, mercury, and other toxins that can affect the entire body.
  • Unpasteurized milk. This type of raw milk is sometimes used to make yogurt, soft cheeses and ice cream, but it can contain E. coli, listeria, campylobacter and salmonella. Listeria, in particular, is dangerous for pregnant women; the bacteria can have a traumatic effect on the pregnancy.
  • Produce. While fruits and vegetables don’t naturally contain dangerous bacteria, they can pick it up on the journey from the farm to your restaurant. Leafy greens, for example, are a common carrier of E. coli, which can cause serious infections and kidney failure.

Bacteria aren’t the only substances that can be transferred during cross contamination — allergens can also be a problem. People with serious food allergies must often avoid dishes and ingredients that have been in contact with specific allergens; nuts, dairy and gluten are common triggers. The only safe way to serve a customer with a significant allergy is to prepare their food using separate utensils, equipment, dishes, pots, cleaning implements and ingredients.

Gluten-free food is a particular concern for restaurants because, unlike most bacteria, gluten is a protein that survives the heating and sanitizing processes. Careful handling is a must. For example, gluten-free toast should not be made in a toaster that’s also used for regular bread. Even trace amounts in cooked food can cause a severe allergic reaction.

Tips for preventing cross contamination

To prevent cross contamination, your restaurant should develop a set of food safety best practices that support public health. Every employee who interacts with food should follow a few key procedures:

  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap before and after working with food.
  • Wash hands after touching garbage, bathroom equipment or handles.
  • Use separate cutting boards, dishes and utensils for raw meat.
  • Maintain safe temperatures while thawing frozen meat.
  • Use pasteurized milk instead of raw milk.
  • Avoid tasting foods with raw eggs.
  • Wash vegetables thoroughly.
  • Make sure cooked meats reach a safe internal temperature.
  • Use gloves as necessary when handling raw food.
  • Don’t undercook eggs and foods that contain eggs.
  • Throw away raw meat packaging immediately to contain juices.
  • Don’t leave cooked food out at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
  • Avoid working in the kitchen when sick.

Safe storage is another important step. Any time you’re storing raw food that’s prone to harmful bacteria, make sure it’s packaged to prevent leaks, and keep it away from other foods to prevent contact. Inhibit bacteria growth by keeping your refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler. If you’re reusing cooked, refrigerated ingredients, make sure to use them within 3 or 4 days; after that, the risk for food poisoning increases.

Restaurant kitchens require frequent cleaning — your goal is to remove or kill any bacteria lingering on surfaces or objects. Keep in mind that bacteria can spread easily, so it’s important to clean everything as soon as possible after it comes into contact with bacteria-carrying ingredients. Basic cleaning tips include:

  • Wash dishes with hot, soapy water, using a dishwasher when possible.
  • When drying dishes manually, use a clean towel.
  • Disinfect countertops and other surfaces.
  • Wash kitchen towels and linens on the hottest available cycle.

The bottom line on cross contamination

Cross contamination is a possibility in every restaurant, whether you sell sandwiches or multicourse meals. To update your operations, analyze your kitchen and front-of-house practices and identify opportunities for improvement. Focus on the touchpoints with a high risk of bacterial spread: raw food preparation, storage, and cleaning. Even small adjustments to practices — installing hand-washing stations, for example, or keeping gluten-free food separate — can reduce the presence of harmful bacteria. Work with chefs and kitchen managers to implement new practices, and make sure to train every staff member thoroughly.

Stringent food safety procedures can reduce the risk your restaurant faces, both in the eyes of the public and with government officials. When every staff member adheres to safe practices at all times, it prevents food poisoning incidents. This is critical to maintaining a positive reputation — a single outbreak can be enough to turn off diners and affect your revenue. Consistent safety practices are also the best way to prepare for inspections; that way, you won’t need to worry about health code violations for cross contamination, storage methods, and food temperature.

Improving food safety at your restaurant

When it comes to cross contamination, a proactive approach works best. By adjusting your food-safety practices today, you can preserve the integrity of each ingredient and keep customers safe.At Grubhub, food safety is a top priority. As chefs, we know you’re ensuring your food quality is top notch. Our drivers are committed to keeping your food safe en route to its destination. Looking for a partner to seamlessly get your dishes to hungry customers? Partner with Grubhub today.