No, because robots don’t source food; would you feel safer with a robot behind the fast food counter?

Steven Burton of Huffington Post Canada writes that with fast food workers trying to unionize to their wages to $15 an hour, some employers are thinking less is more when it comes to staffing and plan to completely automate fast food restaurants. It seems impossible to avoid this future but with all of the outbreaks of foodborne illnesses linked to fast food in the last few years, will these innovations be safer than human prepared food or will we be risking our health more than we already do?

woody.allen.robot.sleepersThe fast food of the future will involve the customer entering their order into a virtual touchscreen interface. Prices could be a little lower as some of the payroll savings may filter down to the customer (I would not hold my breath about this though).

Once the order is entered and payment received, robotic machines in the kitchen will swing into action: cooking the food and assembling the order, bagging everything, and delivering it hot into your hungry hands.

The technology for this already exists. Burger robots from Momentum Machines have the ability to slice tomatoes, lettuce, pickles and onions right before they are placed on the burger so that they are crisper and more flavourful. The burgers are also freshly ground. The robots then wrap, bag, and send it out to the customer via conveyor to the front.

Unlike their human counterparts your order will be taken correctly every time. It will be filled quickly as these robots work at lightning speed; and because this process does not involve human contact with your food it is less likely to be contaminated. After all, machines do not have hair that can fall in the food or bacteria on their skin like Staphylococcus which can infect food. The best part is that the robot making your food will not have a cold, sneeze on your sandwich, and then wrap it up and hand it to you; as has happened to me on more than one occasion.

A potential food safety issue may arise from the robots’ inability to clean themselves. Human workers will need to be vigilant about cleaning them in order to ensure that they are free of food particles which may grow pathogens.

That tomato may be sliced fresh, but where did it come from and was contamination limited on the farm?

That’s a human decision, and the sooner restaurants and food service start exerting their buying power, the better. Source food from safe sources.

Food safety a habit: Indonesia

Chef Vindex Tengker told the Jakarta Post that Indonesians have so far been lucky that, despite a lack of awareness on food safety, things have been going rather well, adding, “I have spent 24 years working around kitchens around the globe. I’ve been in the US, Spain, Turkey, Japan and Vindex TengkerMexico; food safety is a problem everywhere. Food safety is attitude; it takes time to develop an attitude. You have to do it each and every day.” 

Wasis Gunarto, a general manager of a well-known cafe and restaurant franchise in Jakarta, said food businesspeople were in the dark about food safety standards and certification.

“We don’t have much knowledge on food safety standards from the government and which body is in charge of the certification,” Wasis said.
He said his company opted to cooperate with an international hotel chain and have their restaurant employees trained under international hotel standards.

“I think the government has a lot of homework to do in this food safety standards issue. They should not only focus on restaurant operators but also apply food safety standards on produce distributors and suppliers,” Wasis said.

The story notes the World Health Organization has devised five keys to safer food: clean; separate; cook; keep food at safe temperatures; and use safe water and raw materials.

As in source food from safe sources. FightBac folks, are you listening?

Where has that meat been?

A news team in South Carolina used a hidden camera to catch nine area grocery stores reselling meat that had been returned to the store by members of the news crew.

Nine other stores tested by the team did not put the returned meat back in the display case. These stores were concerned that once the meat was outside of their control, it could be deliberately contaminated or allowed to get too warm – as they should be.

The same is true for meat coming to a store for the first time. Smart retailers use suppliers they can trust based on those suppliers’ openness about handling procedures.

Toronto police are currently alerting the public that a truckload of chicken breasts was stolen last week and has since been repackaged and sold.

Police photographs show that the stickers on the new packages tell consumers to keep the chicken refrigerated. Nice touch.

Retailers should know that consumers are not the first line of defense against foodborne illness.

What happened to the product before it was sold to stores? Did the thieves take the steps necessary to reduce the microbial risks associated with transporting raw meat? Could they prove it?

Peanut Corp. of America epitomized a business whose sole concern was turning a profit. I’m sure a crime ring would be quite similar.

So the big question is, did anybody ask?

Grocery stores who resell returned meat are taking the same risks as stores who sell meat from suppliers they know very little about.

It never hurts to ask questions.

Taste of Chicago: Inspections not enough, get food from safe sources

Deborah Shelton of the Chicago Tribune gave me a call Friday morning before spending the day with a food inspector at the annual Taste of Chicago event, expected to draw some six million people.

Last year, some 800 visitors to the Taste were sickened with Salmonella, traced to hummus served at the Pars Cove Persian Cuisine booth. It may have been the sesame seeds, or tomatoes, in the hummus; it may have been a hand hygiene issue.

"Handwashing, avoiding cross-contamination and monitoring food temperatures are important efforts, but for a lot of foodborne illness, these aren’t enough," said Doug Powell, scientific director of the International Food Safety Network based at Kansas State University. "What people are missing is that many of these outbreaks are caused by foods contaminated at their source."

Last year, I said the Chicago Department of Public Health engaged in “a breathtaking example of doublespeak,” and “what is possibly the biggest piece of PR puffery I’ve ever seen” as the Department insisted:

"The Pars Cove situation represents the first confirmed outbreak of illness associated with the event in at least 20 years. In the larger context of having safely served tens of millions of people in recent years, the Taste remains quite possibly the safest food service operation in the city."

The sick people were probably interested to know they were a statistical anomaly.

But it continues.

Dr. Terry Mason, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said yesterday,

"The Taste of Chicago is the most highly regulated, tightly scrutinized event in the city, perhaps even in the nation."

Mason said food inspections will take place at booths four times a day to ensure the public’s safety.

"One case of illness is one case too many, but the fact remains that no other major outdoor food event in the nation has a better track record of safety than this one.”

Show me the data. Or show the data to the 800 sick people from last year. And, Dr. Mason, you can inspect 20 times a day; until you have a plan to verify that raw ingredients are coming from safe – or at least microbiologically aware — sources, your Taste is a vulnerable to foodborne illnesss as any other eating event.

Sure, asking questions is hard. But public health inspectors are ideally suited to ask those hard questions. Restaurants that want to avoid Bill Marler need to be able to answer those questions.