Wake County (NC) surveys food handling practices; makes me a happy resident

I’m pretty happy to live in Wake County today. It’s not just the sunny and warm weather (supposed to be in the 80s today); great amenities for a family or the relatively low cost of living that have me excited.

It’s the food safety nerd stuff.  

Wake County Public Health (the same folks who followed-up with me during the Campylobacter 2009 incident) have been proactively evaluating potential legislation changes and released a report on how well the businesses and institutions they inspect are doing when it comes to reducing foodborne illness risk factors.
FDA has conducted similar surveys in the past (2003 and 2008) and now Wake has local data that can be used for lots of different things including evaluating inspection changes, food handler training interventions and system differences.
Using a FDA data collection instrument including observation, health officials evaluated 458 randomly selected food service establishments representing  various types of facilities (including schools, hospitals, delis, full service restaurants and fast food). 
According to the report,
Wake County staff used a combination of direct observations at each restaurant and responses from restaurant management and food preparation staff. For each of the facility types, the number of items recorded as non?compliant with the current FDA Food Code was recorded. 
Improper holding/time and temperature was the risk factor found to be most often out of compliance.  The highest percentage of OUT of compliance values were most commonly  associated with:  
-Improper cold holding of potentially hazardous food (PHF)  and  
-Inadequate date marking of refrigerated ready?to?eat PHF 
Poor personal hygiene was the risk factor with the second highest incidence of OUT of compliance values.  The OUT of compliance values were most commonly associatd with: 
– Non?compliant employee health policy and
– Improper handwashing. 
A study like this does have limitations (inspectors as observers might influence behaviors of food handlers and managers, more than if it was an outside observer; observers get tired and miss things, have their own biases) but this is a great starting point and more than what many others have. Reports like this might generate some scary headlines but they arm health officials and the industry with a starting point to compare future efforts against.
According to Andre Pierce, Environmental Health director, “Based on the survey, the County will direct its attention to the risk factors that are most frequently out-of-compliance in food service establishments, and implement programs to reduce or eliminate the frequency of all of the risk factors that contribute to foodborne illness.”
Food safety culture issues are featured prominently in the report – addressing things like having ill food handlers step away from the kitchen (and managers supporting them) and monitoring how long open deli meats sit in a fridge are more than just regulatory concerns.
I told Martha Quillin of the News and Observer,
"Legislation can only go so far. What’s more important is what happens when the inspector’s not there. You have to find a way to engage everyone, from the business owner all the way down to the 15-year-old who works in the kitchen, in the concept that we need to prevent food-borne illness."

Reducing some of these factors have less to do with different inspections and more to do with creating an environment within a business where staff know risks, how to manage them and value not making patrons ill.
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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.