Unclean Self-Service Areas
By Cindy Rice, RS, CP-FS, MSPH Eastern Food Safety
Self-service food bars, beverage stations and condiment areas are usually a convenience benefit for customers, and many food establishments depend on these methods for efficient meal delivery. They are free-standing, self-serving, and basically run by themselves, right? Actually, in spite of best efforts by foodservice facilities to minimize food safety risks, sometimes things fall short and unsafe conditions still occur. Salad bars, hot food buffets, soda fountain areas, coffee and tea urns, condiment stations, utensil and napkin dispensers can be hot spots for pathogens and other dangers. In a buffet line, serving utensils are often stored outside of food containers or sometimes fall out, adding to food messes and potential cross contamination of foods in the containers themselves. Condiment stations are often soiled with ketchup/mustard spills and disheveled cups. Beverage areas often show liquid spills, untidy cups and lids. Unclean self-service areas are commonly overlooked as a source of food contamination and health risks, not to mention a poor presentation of your brand to customers.
Contaminated equipment and environmental surfaces contribute to 13% of all foodborne illnesses, according to the CDC, and unclean non- food contact surfaces are cited 22% of the time by health inspectors during routine inspections of food establishments. Surfaces surrounding buffets, salad bars, condiment stations and beverage dispensers can easily get contaminated with spilled foods and liquids if left unchecked. Neighboring foods, glassware and serving utensils can also get contaminated with pathogens if conditions are left unchecked, and cross contact with food allergens is also a danger.
REASONS WHY THIS CAN HAPPEN:
Self-service areas can be extremely busy and get a lot of traffic with customers, leaving them open to drips and spills, messy utensils and cups, soiled utensils, and cross contamination of foods in containers. Also, customers trying to navigate and circumvent cumbersome sneeze guards can contribute to the problem. These areas may be easily neglected by staff, due to their independent nature. If an operation has inadequate staffing, self-service stations tend to be the first areas that are overlooked so more urgent tasks can be attended.
According to the FDA 2017 Food Code (4-602.13) “Non-food-contact surfaces of equipment shall be cleaned at a frequency necessary to preclude accumulation of soil residues,” assuming temperature and personal hygiene controls are maintained. Containers for TCS foods (Time and Temperature Control for Safety) should be cleaned at least every 24 hours, assuming the food is kept at proper hot or cold temperatures (FDA Section 4-602.11).
- Active Managerial Control: Assign specific personnel to monitor these stations at designated time intervals (e.g., hourly). Clean surfaces surrounding buffets, salad bars, beverage and condiment stations, and restock supplies at predetermined frequencies, or as needed.
- Cleaning supplies: Keep tables, countertops, and station surfaces clean. Have readily accessible single-use table wipes and food contact multi-surface sanitizing wipes, or wiping cloths and sanitizer buckets for cleaning areas regularly
- Eating utensils: In a utensil station, store eating utensils in containers with the handles up, or offer pre-packaged utensils or utensil dispensers
- Serving utensils: In a food bar, store serving utensils inserted in the food containers themselves with handles up, to keep areas cleaner, and maintain utensil temperatures. If serving utensils are stored on surfaces outside the food, wash and sanitize surfaces and utensils every 4 hours. Have a separate serving utensil in each container
- Condiment stations: Offer pre-packaged condiments and salad dressings
- SOP: Include self-service areas in your Master Cleaning Schedule and Standard Operating Procedures for your operation
Are your self-service food and beverage stations sparkling clean and tidy? If not, go on to explore the reasons why, whether it’s a lack of accessible cleaning supplies, staffing issues or training. Once you discover the reason for the shortcoming, dig in to stock your supplies and apply good practices to that specific area. Keep those hazards at bay and present a clean face to your customers.