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Industry Experts Share Tips for National Food Safety Education Month

National Food Safety Education Month is recognized in the United States in September. We asked our experts to share how restaurants can level up food safety.

National Food Safety Education Month is recognized across the United States in September. For restaurants, regular audits can serve as a critical method of establishing and maintaining food safety. We asked two of our in-house food safety experts to share a few ways restaurants can leverage audits during September and all year round.

Here’s what NSF’s Christine Andrews and Matt Taylor had to say.

Q: Why are food safety audits vital in establishments such as restaurants, franchises, grocery stores and more?

Matt: A food safety audit can be a great way of measuring and validating whether food safety standards are being met. It can show you where your business succeeds and highlight areas you perform well in (e.g., if team members washed their hands correctly), and it can also show you ways to improve your business, such as identifying a pest issue during a kitchen walk-through. Over time, collecting audit data can help you recognize trends and areas to focus on for improvements.

Christine: Food safety audits can validate your organization’s food safety systems. Audits can help you identify risks to the brand and allow you to focus your efforts on delivering resources or tools to drive compliance.

Q: What does a food safety audit include?

Matt: A food safety audit is typically performed against an agreed standard. The audit could cover your food safety management system or food safety plan, or be part of an external accredited audit. The audit covers a series of criteria relevant to the business, unlike an inspection, which is more of a hazard-spotting exercise in which you walk through a facility and check for issues.

Christine: One trend I’ve seen over the past few years is that most companies have moved toward audits that align with regulatory requirements related to food safety. In addition, many companies utilize audits to focus on brand-specific needs, information gathering and safety aspects.

Q: What are some of your top tips for preparing for a food safety audit?

Matt: Asking for an audit template can help you with the pre-audit walk-through so you know what to look for during the audit. Remember — don’t be afraid, as audits identify what’s wrong and show you what you’re doing well!

Christine: Since an audit validates a system, make sure you review and even conduct a pre-audit walk-through to see where you currently stand. If you find any issues, go back to your standard operating procedures (SOPs) and identify the gaps. Then you can work to implement improved processes to close those gaps ahead of the final audit.

Q: What are the most common mistakes in food safety audits?

Matt: Inconsistency is one mistake we sometimes see. Operators must be mindful of the auditors undertaking the audits, ensuring that when different auditors use the same standard, they are all calibrated and aligned. Another issue is scheduling the audit when the business is busy. It can be disruptive to team members and make things like cleanliness hard to discern during that time.

Christine: Lack of active management can also contribute to weaker food safety in restaurants. Common misses include not washing hands after changing tasks, contaminating gloves and improper sanitation. As the workforce is very lean across the industry, cleaning can sometimes get pushed down on the list.

Matt: On the topic of management, I’d add that it’s essential that the manager or supervisor understand what they are being audited against and quickly resolve and document the fix for any identified issues. A big mistake is sitting on the actions and doing nothing. Remember, the audit will help you be best in class!

Q: If I cannot afford/do not have the capacity for an audit, what can I do to create more food safety in my establishment?

Matt: Build a simple checklist of critical areas you can start focusing on, such as your top 10 food safety issues. It could include pests, handwashing, food labeling and food storage. Once you’ve created a checklist, you and your team can execute it once a week or as a basic check during opening and closing each day. It doesn’t take much time or labor and can build more confidence with your inspector and regulator.

Christine: Look at your most recent health department inspection and correct any noted violations. In addition, keep it simple and clean, separate, cook, and chill!

Q: What are the essential food safety practices for employees?

Matt: One that I often recommend is personal hygiene, including maintaining effective handwashing. Your hands touch everything from the refrigerator handle to the food — preparing, cooking and serving it. Everything else you do afterward is affected if your hands are not clean. Effective handwashing is so critical. Wash your hands regularly and correctly and double-check that handwashing stations have soap and towels. Don’t forget about the following areas as well: cross-contamination, stock rotation, allergen control, temperature control, maintaining cleaning standards, pest control, reporting of issues, managing sick employees and training (NSF offers a variety of great training programs).

Christine: I’d echo Matt and say that if a team member can improve only one thing, it’s effective handwashing! Employees have many tasks when working, but they should always remember that handwashing is an essential aspect of their work in food service.

Q: What can companies do to help their employees keep food safety at the top of their list?

Christine: I believe the best way to keep food safety top of mind with your employees is to have a strong food safety culture within your organization, from the top down. Recognize good behavior and continue to incorporate food safety in various aspects of communication. Consider focusing on a different food safety topic each month and providing materials throughout the restaurant to reinforce that area of focus.

Matt: Keep it simple and avoid jargon. Use real-life examples in your food safety training to teach the risks and consequences of breaching food safety. Visuals are also great to include as scare stories that can help to get your message across effectively (e.g., for allergens or foodborne illnesses). Include some form of validation in regular training to help employees understand the training they received and implement it.

Communication is also vital. I love seeing managers recognize and praise the efforts of their team members and then share their achievements with the rest of the business. Relay audit results and be transparent when things have not gone according to plan. Be sure to explain the why and don’t focus on blaming an individual. Encourage a positive food safety culture and ask teams to report back to you if they see something that is not right.

Matt Taylor is Senior Manager of Consulting and Technical Services for NSF’s global food division. His more than two decades in the food safety industry have led him to work with multiple retailers, food service and hospitality companies, distributors, hoteliers, and manufacturers worldwide.

Christine Andrews is the Director of Retail for NSF in North America. She has more than 20 years of experience supporting public health and safety in the restaurant and retail industries, from regulatory requirements to food safety.

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