Handling Foodborne Illness Complaints

Q: How should I handle a customer who complains that they got sick from a meal they ate at my restaurant, and how do I know if it was even my food that made them sick?

A:  It may not be.  Always treat the customer with respect, and gather as much information as you can, including their name and phone number, types of foods that they ate, date of the meal and the date that they got sick.  If 2 or more unrelated persons experienced the same symptoms after eating the same foods, it would be considered an outbreak.  If the local health department receives complaints of an outbreak nature, they will most likely do an investigation to identify the cause and any information you collected could be helpful.   Keep in mind that it often takes time for symptoms to develop in case of an infection – this person’s illness might be from something that was eaten days earlier at a different establishment or even at home.

Serving Foods with Bones

Q:  I work at an assisted living community in the dietary department, and have been told that we are never to send food with bones to the Alzheimer’s wing.  Is it dangerous to feed a memory impaired patient food with bones in it (fried chicken or pork chop)?

A: The reason for not recommending bone-in foods for memory-impaired patients is probably the risk of a physical contaminant (small piece or sliver of bone) getting in the food.   This could be a choking hazard.  Also, a bone-in food is also more difficult to eat for such persons (maneuvering around the bone) rather than a boneless food which may easier to cut and eat, less frustrating, and therefore more satisfying for the patient.

Safety of foods sitting at room temperature?

Q: This afternoon I bought a 5 pound box of chicken nuggets . I bought them at 5:20 and at 8:30 discovered that they were sitting on the counter in my kitchen. My son had carried them in for me and forgot to put them in the freezer. When I discovered them I put them in the freezer immediately but am a bit worried about eating them. They say they are pre-cooked. When I had found them on the counter they seemed thawed but still cold. I hate to throw away such a large package of food. Do you think they will be safe to eat if I cook them thoroughly?

A: It all goes back to the 4 hour rule: foods such as chicken nuggets should not sit out at room temperature for longer than 4 hours total. So if they were colder than 41 degrees F when your son carried them into the house ( sounds like they were frozen) and they sat out at room temperature for 3 hours, they would be safe as long as you froze them immediately, and cook them soon after you remove from the freezer. Do not remove to thaw at room temperature, but cook from the frozen state. And Remember cook all poultry products to an internal temperature of 165 F for 15 seconds, to be sure they are thoroughly cooked.

Storing Foods Outside

Q:  At a church where I work part-time, people make sack lunches to feed the homeless. When they think it is cold enough, they put the sandwiches in an elevator that is on the outside of the building, and is not heated. A few times I have been concerned that it was not cold enough to be refrigerating the food this way.  At what temperature can you safely refrigerate food outside?

A: The internal temperature of the food should be at 41 degrees F or lower, to be safe from bacteria growth.

Searing vs. Cooking Meat

Q: Why is it safe to simply sear the outside of whole muscle cuts of meat, as opposed to cooking ground meats to higher temperatures?

A: Bacteria  are usually concentrated on the outside surfaces of whole muscle cuts of meats such as steaks, roasts, chops. Cooking these foods to 145˚ F kills bacteria to safe levels.  Because grinding meats essentially distributes bacteria throughout the product, it is necessary to cook these products to higher internal temperatures, 155˚ F for safe eating.

Wrapping Foods to Prevent Bacteria Growth

Q: If I wrap a food, like a leftover turkey sandwich, in air tight plastic wrap, can I keep that food out overnight on the counter?

A: It’s not the air that is the risk to foods being left out overnight, but warm air temperatures (between 41°F and 135° F) that can allow dangerous bacteria in these foods to grow. The protein (turkey) in your sandwich is potentially hazardous-  your sandwich should be wrapped to protect it from outside bacteria, but also refrigerated to prevent excessive bacterial growth overnight.

Hair Restraints

Q:  In food handling, hair restraints are required.  I’ve heard that this is because hair is made up of 90% protein which supports rapid bacterial growth. Then why is it OK for arm hair to be unprotected during food handling?

A: The reason for hair restraints is not so much the hair protein that can support bacterial growth (hair is also dry, which would hinder growth)  but the tendency for persons to touch their hair, scratch scalp, wipe sweat, etc, which could contaminate hands and fingers with Staphylococcal or other bacteria from our bodies.  Also, we lose hair follicles every day, in which case falling hair poses a physical contamination risk to foods.

While not specifically required in the FDA food code,  many operations require arms to be covered with chef coats, shirts or arm guards, to shield arms and hair from contacting food.  It’s up to the individual to use discretion and good judgment in requiring arms to be covered or not, depending on the risk in a particular operation.

Limits on Reheating Foods

Q:  I always thought that after a food was reheated, it must be thrown out after service.  Can TCS foods be prepared, cooled, reheated, and served repeatedly as long as they are held hot and cooled down properly?

A:  Yes.  FDA regulations do not prohibit reheating more than one time. It is sometimes industry that prevents this practice, more for quality reasons, (food dries out, taste or appearance may be compromised) but from a food safety point of view, it is safe as long as the cooling, reheating and storage is done properly according to FDA Food Code guidelines or regulations in your jurisdiction.

Freezing foods

Q: Does freezing kill bacteria in foods?

A. No, freezing foods only makes the bacteria in them hibernate, or basically go to sleep. They will not die, but they will not grow as long as they are frozen. Once you take them out of the refrigerator, though, and start to defrost the foods, the bacteria wake up and start growing again. As long the foods are frozen, bacteria will not grow, but do not die either.

HACCP required foods

Q: When is a HACCP plan required for restaurants?

A: You are required to have a written HACCP plan if you are making these foods, considered “Special Processes” by FDA Food Code:

Sushi, Canned low acid foods, Vacuum-packing (including Sous vide)

Curing meats, Smoking fish or meats, Raw sprouts production,

Packaged unpasteurized juices, Mussel tanks.