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Safety Practices in the Kitchen: Chefs Dish on their Biggest Concerns
March 2009

Health and safety in the kitchen are always major concerns for chefs. Considering the ongoing recession, restaurants must be extra stringent in maintaining department of health standards if they wish to remain open.

In a recent survey of nearly 500 culinary professionals conducted by StarChefs, 32% of respondents said that above all else food and personal safety problems could potentially cost them their reputation. With restaurants closing their doors all over the country, maintaining a clean restaurant, and reputation as such, is crucial.

The majority of culinary professionals surveyed said that they were prepared for the health inspector through such preemptive strategies as a safety committee, quarterly or monthly audits, and/or having a HAACP plan on file. Thirty percent said that they were only “somewhat prepared” and (lucky for restaurant-goers) a meager one percent responded “we don’t even know where our first-aid kit is—we’re in trouble!”

Still, 92 percent responded that additional training and education was a goal for food and personal safety. As any chef can tell you, staffing is one of the biggest problems in a restaurant. Many want simple, effective training for their employees to help eliminate “bad crew habits.” Having quick training is essential considering the high turnover that many restaurants face.

Ongoing education regarding health and safety in the kitchen is important in any kitchen, and those surveyed see a direct correlation between clean kitchens and staying in business. One chef cited “consistency, happiness, and longevity in the business” as a goal for food and personal safety, which was echoed by another chef’s desire to provide “a safe place to enjoy [a] meal.”

Health codes vary based on state and locality and while the process is foreign to most consumers, it is all too familiar for workers in the restaurant business. As those in the kitchen know, health inspections do not conclude with a simple pass or fail. Rather, restaurants can receive a certain number of violations before they require a compliance inspection, and even more before they are shut down. This information is available online, but many diners are still blissfully ignorant of the fact that a restaurant can remain open despite violations such as evidence of mice and rats or improperly stored food.

In Los Angeles restaurants are mandated to post their food facility ratings, which are letter grades that correlate to their inspection score. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced that the city will be phasing in a similar structure, arguing that “this new system will encourage the less sanitary restaurants to clean up—and won’t punish the good guys. As sanitation improves, so will business. The more residents and tourists can trust the food they buy in New York City restaurants, the more likely they are to patronize them.”

Is this part of a greater trend toward more rigorous and transparent health inspection practices? Although that remains to be seen, what is clear is that the public is increasingly interested in the safety of the food they are consuming. At this time of economic downturn, the last thing chefs and restaurateurs need is a reason for customers to take their business elsewhere. What this means, though, is that eateries in LA and soon New York will have to go that extra mile and work for an “A.” Indeed, one survey respondent said that their goal for food and personal safety was a “good score [on the] health score posted in public view.”

Despite the recession, 75% of people surveyed said that they choose their food and personal safety supplier based on quality product, as opposed to only 32% who consider price first. Yet, of those surveyed, 30% reported that they use several different purveyors—often over 10!—to supply them with their needs. They find that on-time deliveries and reliability are the biggest problems they face in choosing purveyors. This issue could be addressed by streamlining the process and finding a single reliable, one-stop-shop purveyor.

Chefs have an arsenal of solutions for food and personal safety issues that arise in the kitchen, some of which work better than others. Of those who responded to our survey, 87% reported that they have tried safety training and education of staff, but 10% say that they require no training whatsoever for employees and managers.

We also learned that 77% of the food service professionals surveyed use or have tried food labeling and rotation systems. Research shows that the best way to control food costs is to have an effective food rotation system in place, yet 14% of respondents said they do not currently use any kind of food labeling. Some had a complete lack of knowledge about food labels, and many noted they were simply looking for an easier food labeling system. Our survey results indicate that food rotation labels save an average of 10.6 hours of labor a week and reduce wasted food disposal by $210 per week—an average savings of $15,330 annually.

Everyone knows a clean kitchen is key, and culinary professionals are doing their best to maintain this. Our survey indicates, however, that a significant percentage of culinary professionals do not have such simple things in place as adequate training, a food rotation system, and a single health and safety purveyor. In these dreary times, simply passing is no longer sufficient to stay in business.


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