(Sept. 21) It was business as usual at a Midwestern hotel several years ago. Kitchen workers went about their jobs cutting, slicing and preparing food for the hotel restaurant. No one was aware of any wrongdoing until guests became sick with E. coli.

An investigation linked the sickness to the kitchen, where workers had unwittingly sliced through unwashed watermelon with a knife causing cross-contamination.

That’s the type of scenario you have nightmares about. You don’t even want to think about the ramifications if your operation was tied to a foodborne illness. But you have to think about it.

Even if you’ve been through a food safety course, keep learning and improving.

“It’s like Jack in the Box in the early 1990s,” says Sheri Mock, who heads quality assurance for Dallas-based Dave & Buster’s Inc., with 33 restaurants. She refers to the fast-food burger chain that was charged in an E. coli outbreak and bounced back. She believes there’s probably not a safer place to eat with all the food safety safeguards the chain put in place since the crisis.

Others share her sentiments. The International Association for Food Protection, Des Moines, Ill., just awarded Jack in the Box its Black Pearl award for 2004. The organization for food safety professionals gives the award to one company each year in recognition of its leadership in food quality and safety, says David Theno, senior vice president of quality and logistics for Jack in the Box, adding, “We’re very proud to receive it.”

The company has all its food safety bases covered under a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point program. Whether or not you have a HACCP program, evaluate your backroom handling procedures in five areas.

RECEIVE WITH CARE

Your first opportunity to get it right or wrong inside your operation happens at the back door.

Make sure only those who have been trained and authorized to receive deliveries meet the incoming truck.

“Once that person has experience and gets to know the people trucking (the produce) in, it counts for a lot,” Mock says, referring to the company’s receiving specialists.

Stephen Martinello, director of quality control for the 30 Legal Sea Foods restaurants with headquarters in Boston, even watches for the condition of the produce delivery truck. “We want to make sure they are clean and all the boxes have been put on pallets. If you get a dirty truck and no pallets, all that bacteria on the bottom of the package could get in the food inside and on surfaces in the restaurant,” he says.

Employees at Milford, Conn.-based Subway Restaurants, are instructed to check the use-by date or repackage date on all produce deliveries. They also check the temperature of produce and reject the load if it not at the proper temperature, says Les Winograd, public relations coordinator. The chain operates more than 21,000 restaurants in 75 countries.

CLEAN PROPERLY

Evaluate how you clean the product and the equipment and utensils that touch the product.

Give extra attention to melons, says Jan Thomas, owner and president of food safety training company Safe Food Handlers Corp., New Berlin, Ill. She suggests washing melons in soap and water and placing them in a bleach solution. This helps avoid the cross-contamination that happens as the knife drags the bacteria from the rind through the flesh. “Then, don’t leave it at room temperature once it’s cut. Bacteria will grow because of the low pH level.”

She also suggests washing the produce right away before refrigerating it. “The longer it sits, the more bacteria (grows),” she says.

As Dave & Buster’s changes its menu, Mock sends to the restaurants a new list of produce items that should be washed upon arrival and which should be washed just before food preparation.

Corporate executive chef Oona Settembre sees the value of washing some produce right away, especially lemons that bartenders, waiters and bus people tend to grab quickly to use in drinks or as a garnish, she says.

Bell peppers, cabbage and citrus are examples of items on Mock’s list of items to wash right away. The restaurants set the washed items in the cooler on lexan, a type of perforated plastic that allows any residual water to drain into a platform below so the produce doesn’t sit in the water and grow bacteria or mold.

Tomatoes, baking potatoes, lettuces, carrots, red onions, berries and basil are to be washed just before preparing them, she says. The company also has a rule not to order anything that can’t be used within 48 hours.

The question came up at Dave & Buster’s about whether it’s necessary to wash pre-sliced mushrooms. Mock researched and found that unless the operator requests it, sliced mushrooms aren’t washed at any time during production or processing, therefore it’s necessary to wash them at the restaurant. She added them to the list of items to wash immediately before prepping.

Dave & Buster’s and Legal Sea Foods use the antibacrobial fruit and vegetable wash Victory manufactured and distributed by Ecolab, St. Paul, Minn.

Both restaurant chains have a dispenser at the washing sink with a tube connected to the tap water. The person washing the produce pushes a button on the dispenser, which releases the proper concentration of Victory with the tap water to either soak or rinse the produce.

Martinello with Legal Sea Foods says he prefers Victory produce wash to products like Proctor & Gamble’s Fit because Victory is antibacrobial (killing bacteria), is safe and doesn’t leave any taste.

HANDLE AND STORE PROPERLY

Remember that you will ruin the flavor of some produce items if you store them in the refrigerator.

“Tomatoes, onions, potatoes — anything that has a lot of reducing sugars that can turn brown when they are cold — use the dry storage rack for them,” says Martinello with Legal Seafoods.

Some of the restaurants have walk-in coolers dedicated to produce, he says.

“It’s imperative to have a good FIFO (first-in, first-out) system because of insects you could attract, like fruit flies,” he adds.

After workers at Jack in the Box prep product, either the night before or early in the morning, they store the cut produce in containers with a label giving the hour it was prepared. If the product isn’t used in the prescribed time frame, usually 24 hours or less, it is thrown away, Theno says.

Subway workers initial and date items, including fresh-cut items they prepare, before they store them in the cooler, Winograd says.

Thomas of Safe Food Handlers also reminds operators not to store food near chemicals. Store cleaning supplies, insecticides and pesticides in a separate area to prevent anyone from grabbing the wrong container while preparing food.

SUPERVISE PERSONAL HYGIENE

Lack of hand washing and confusion about when to wear gloves is the biggest food safety challenge restaurants face, says Thomas with Safe Food Handlers.

If they wear gloves, workers tend to do everything in the gloves — answer the phone, take out the garbage, sweep and mop the floor, use the restroom, take money and prepare food, she says, adding, “They need to know when to wash their hands.”

Still, it’s better to wear gloves because staphylococcal bacteria lives on the skin, especially under the fingernails. “If they have gloves, they won’t have the nail problem,” Thomas says.

Workers at Legal Sea Foods follow a no-bare-hand-contact rule. They have to wear gloves, even when they clean produce, Martinello says. They take the boxes out of the walk-in cooler, dump the produce in the sink, turn on the wash water, then put on gloves. They are to change their gloves when they leave their workstation.

Jack in the Box also requires workers to wear gloves — after they have washed and sanitized their hands and wrists. Managers know to watch carefully for violations. “Compliance to it is exceptional. It’s part of our culture,” Theno says.

If managers catch workers not following the clean hands and gloves rules, “managers will help them correct it. The punishment if they don’t follow the rules: We promote them to guest,” he says.

With its HACCP program, Jack in the Box keeps a daily log of compliance and infractions of the rules. Violations are noted on the log, including the person’s name and corrective measures taken. Those who continue to violate rules are either retrained or replaced.

Dirty aprons present another common personal hygiene challenge, says Thomas with Safe Food Handlers.

Workers don’t change their aprons often enough or they wear them to the restroom, to eat or to smoke. Those things contaminate the apron, she says.

TRAIN AND MONITOR CONTINUALLY

There are many reasons not to train employees — lack of time, high employee turnover, lack of resources, inability to teach — but no excuse is acceptable, Thomas says.

Jack in the Box has an in-house video production group that produces most of the company’s training materials. Additionally, all of the management goes through the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ServSafe training program, Theno says.

As the chain has identified its back-of-the-house critical control points, it has posted the required procedures for each area including hand washing, refrigeration, rotation and glove usage, Theno says.

Not only do employees at Legal Sea Foods receive food safety training when they join the company, they have ongoing training every 1½ months using NRA’s ServSafe Essentials program, Martinello says.

At Dave & Buster’s, the restaurant manager goes through the restaurant every day with a checklist looking for cleanliness and safety, Mock says. The list is signed and dated.

Then company officials do random inspections, only announcing which month they will come.

Mock has set up a color rating code. The restaurants can rate (from best to worst) gold, green, yellow or red. “No one has made gold yet, but we are promoting that. Because no one has made it yet, it’s a big deal. The first store that makes that goal, we’ll do something special for them,” she says.