(Long before an outbreak of E. coli O145 was linked to romaine lettuce served at salad bars, Food Safety Reporting student Reggie Stimpson (right, exactly as shown) set out to document food safety practices at some Manhattan (Kansas) salad bars. Reggie describes himself as new to food safety reporting but a vigorous eater. Currently a Kansas State University student living in Wichita, Kansas, he hopes to one day graduate and pay off his student loans before death – dp)
MANHATTAN, KS — On my 16th birthday my mom got me a job at a large grocery chain, and I continued to work there for another 6 years. During lunch breaks I often found myself at the salad bar looking for something light to keep me going during the remainder of my shift. At the time I knew very little about food safety.
I assumed if it was there for the taking, it had to be safe.
Assumptions can be dangerous in the world of food safety. How can anyone truly know how safe the food at the salad bar is? The procedures of the salad bar staff are unknown to customers. Furthermore, the customers themselves can cause safety problems.
Researchers at the University of California watched salad bars to see sanitary practices and found that 60 per cent of the customers committed at least one infraction in serving themselves at the salad bar. These included: spilling food around containers; dipping their fingers into salad dressings for a sample lick; eating from their plates while waiting in the serving line; and ducking their heads underneath the sneeze guard (clear plastic roof) for better access to the food.
All these are just the infractions that take place at the salad bar, but what about the safety of the raw ingredients?
How fresh are the salad bar items, and how long can food be out safely on the bar? What are the protections against airborne contaminants, and contamination of the bars’ contents by the workers and customers? And, most importantly, what are the criteria the answers to these questions are based on?
These are some of the questions I set out to find answers to. Some of those answers may surprise, some may be exactly as assumed.
According to former Dillons Grocery salad bar worker Shauntae Richardson it all depends on what you consider fresh.
"What we usually did with the fruits and vegetables is chop them up and place them into dated bins before storing them in a refrigerator," Richardson said. “The dates on the bins would be sort of like a expiration date, with four or five days being the cut-off. So on the third day it wasn‘t as fresh as it was on the first, but it was still fresh.”
The dated bins are replaced daily after the bar closes, a ritual meant to insure further safety according to Richardson.
“We would put them in a fresh, clean container so the food wouldn’t just sit in the same spot for days,” she explained. “Which would leave me with a mile-high stack of dishes to do every night.”
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) perishable fresh fruits and vegetables can be best maintained by storing in a clean refrigerator at a temperature of 40° F or below. Temperature is also an important component to salad bar safety. According to the FDA’s food safety website (http://foodsafety.gov/) bacteria grow most rapidly in the range of temperatures between 40 ° and 140 °F, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. This range of temperatures is often called the "Danger Zone."
“I would monitor temperatures every two hours to make sure [items] weren’t warm,” said Richardson. “At Dillons we didn’t have a “Danger Zone” we had the “Safe Zone” which was the ideal temperatures for certain foods.”
Fresh produce does not mean new produce.
“Before I actually worked in produce I thought fresh meant it was picked, washed, and cut that day,” said former Super Target produce worker Brandon Cornwell.
Dates and refrigeration are not the only tests of freshness used at salad bars. According to Cornwell workers are asked to use their senses: “We would touch it, smell it, look at it, and taste it everyday before we put it out.”
According to Richardson different products required different tests.
“When we had watermelon on the bar and it was getting close to expiring you would know because it would start to get real mushy,” she explained. “Pineapples you have to eat because they would still be firm, but taste sour.”
Richardson believes that eventually workers began to make assumptions on the freshness of food based on past experiences.
“Normally the strawberries would be the first to go bad. Then it was the melons, like honeydews, cantalope, and watermelons. So if the strawberries were still good I wouldn’t even check the melons yet,” she said. “And I wasn’t the only one.”
Even the most basic of food safety procedures, like wearing gloves and washing hands, can be taken for granted.
“I would see people wearing the same latex gloves all day,” Cornwell said. “We cut meat, like the chicken for the salad, and they had on the same gloves.”
Richardson agrees: “Yeah, I saw that. We had a sign that told you all the things you can touch that would force you to change gloves: meat, skin, hair, clothing… I probably changed gloves like 10 times a day. I was also given a lovely hair net to minimize the chance of hair getting into the food.”
When asked whether any of these procedures were backed up by research or proof neither former employee knew.
“I just did what I was told,” Cornwell explained.
For example, when used for food safety, hairnets serve two purposes. The first is to keep hair from contacting exposed food, clean and sanitized equipment, utensils and linens, or unwrapped single-service articles. The second is to keep worker’s hands out of their hair.
However many may be unaware there are different types of hairnets. O.R. caps provide maximum protection, making them ideal for use near exposed food products. Mesh hairnets release body heat, but are not for use in direct food contact areas. When asked, Richardson said she believed her hairnet was mesh, but wasn’t sure.
There was a time when I assumed if it was there for the taking, it had to be safe. I assumed that the salad bar was emptied daily, the contents thrown out, and every morning it was re-stocked with new items. I was wrong.
I would not eat at a restaurant if I knew the cook would not eat there. I would not ride in a plane that a pilot found unsafe. So it finally came time to ask the big question: would a former salad bar worker eat from the salad bar?
“One day out of the week we dumped everything on the bar in the trash and started again with all fresh products,” Richardson answered. “That was usually the only day I ate from the salad bar.”