Practicing sophisticated food safety practices in your commercial foodservice is paramount to the success of your business. If food safety isn’t prioritized, the consequences could be dire. A foodborne illness outbreak could result, or a customer with severe allergies might pay the price.

Poor food safety practices can be costly for your operation, resulting in loss of customers, sales and reputation, negative media exposure, lowered staff morale, lawsuits, and legal fees, increased insurance premiums, staff missing work and staff retraining. More importantly, though, are the human costs such as missing work, high medical expenses, long-term disability and, in extreme cases, death.

This crash course is intended to provide a high-level overview of how foodborne illnesses result and what you can do to reduce risk. The information here comes from certified ServSafe® training resources. The FDA Food Code requires that a Certified Food Protection Manager is on the premise during all operating hours to monitor practices to prevent foodborne illnesses. Getting your certification will show patrons that your establishment takes strides to put their health and wellbeing first.

High-Risk Populations

No one is immune to foodborne illness; however, special precautions must be taken to protect those most vulnerable – those at a higher risk of getting a foodborne illness. These include those with weakened immune systems that are not as capable of fighting off disease. Those with compromised immune systems include:

• Elderly people – as people age, their immune systems weaken
• Preschool age children – young children have not had sufficient time to develop a strong immune system
• Those with certain medical conditions – some conditions and medications can weaken immune systems. These include cancer patients going through chemotherapy, HIV/AIDS, transplants

Operations that mainly serve high-risk populations, such as hospitals, nursing homes or daycares, should never serve raw seed sprouts, raw or undercooked eggs, meat or seafood, or unpasteurized milk or juice as the risk of foodborne illness is much higher with these food types.

What is a Foodborne Illness & How Does Food Become Unsafe?

Millions per year fall ill due to unsafe foods. This is largely preventably by better understanding how this happens and proactively training staff in preventative measures.

What is a foodborne illness? Foodborne illnesses are diseases transmitted to people by food. It is considered an outbreak when:

  1. Two or more people share the same symptoms after eating the same food 
  2. Regulatory authorities conduct an investigation
  3. The outbreak is confirmed via an official laboratory analysis 

There are many reasons why food may become unsafe. The five most common are: 

1. Purchasing food from unsafe sources 

Always purchase products from approved, reputable suppliers and check everything thoroughly upon delivery. 

2. Not cooking food correctly

It is imperative that food is cooked or reheated to its minimum internal temperature (varying from product to product) to ensure that dangerous pathogens are killed prior to serving. 

3. Holding foods at incorrect temperatures 

Time-temperature abuse is a major practice related to foodborne illness. This results when foods stay too long in temperatures that promote pathogen growth. The temperature danger zone is between 41°F and 135°F. However, bacteria grow even more rapidly between 70°F and 125°F. 

4. Using contaminated equipment

Cross-contamination occurs when pathogens are transferred from one person or food product to another. There are three major categories of contaminants: biological, chemical and physical.

5. Poor personal hygiene

Food handlers must always remember to wash their hands correctly and frequently, especially after using the restroom and before touching food. They must also avoid touching or scratching wounds and then immediately touching food, and working around food while sick.

All of these are preventable by instilling and practicing proper safety techniques.  


In order to prevent cross-contamination, it is important to understand how it occurs in the first place. As noted above, there are three categories of contaminants: biological, chemical and physical. 

Biological contaminants include microscopic pathogens, such as viruses, parasites, fungi, bacteria, and harmful, naturally occurring toxins in certain plants and seafood.

Chemical contamination results when chemicals, like cleaners, sanitizers, polishers, etc., are incorrectly utilized and come in contact with food or prep surfaces.

Physical contamination happens when foreign, tangible objects, like glass, dirt, hair, bandages, fish bones, etc., find their way into food and pose harm to your guests.

There are many routes contamination can take to manifest, depending on which type we’re dealing with, and many ways these three types can result in foodborne illness:

  • Contaminated ingredients are added to food that receives no further cooking to kill growing pathogens
  • Ready-to-eat food comes into contact with contaminated surfaces
  • Contaminated food comes drips fluids or comes into contact with cooked or ready-to-eat foods
  • A food handler touches contaminated food and then touches a ready-to-eat food
  • Contaminated cleaning cloths come into contact with food-contact surfaces

Common Allergens and Cross-Contact

Similar to the threat of cross-contamination is that of cross-contact in which a product containing an allergen comes into contact with ready-to-eat food or a food-contact surface. A food allergen is a protein in a food or ingredient that may cause some to have a sensitivity. There are more than 160 food items that can cause an allergic reaction; however, just eight common allergens account for 90% of all reactions in the U.S. They include:









Crustacean Shellfish


Tree nuts like walnuts or pecans

Onset time for an allergic reaction varies depending on the person. In some cases, the reaction is instantaneous while other cases symptoms may not present themselves until several hours after consuming the food product. Symptoms may include nausea, shortness of breath, hives or rashes, swelling, abdominal pain, itchiness, and others. Some symptoms may be mild but can progress quickly. In severe instances, anaphylaxis may result. This is a severe allergic reaction that can result in death.

Fifteen million Americans have a food allergy and allergic reactions account for more than 200,000 emergency room visits a year. Certain precautions can be taken to reduce the risk of a guest suffering a reaction as a result of dining at your facility. For starters, food labels should clearly identify any allergens present in the product or ingredient used in the production of the produce. Federal law requires any of the eight aforementioned allergens to be specifically called out on the label.

Prevention is Key

The best way to prevent foodborne illness or allergic reactions is to set up tried and true practices. Food handlers are a primary reason why foodborne illnesses occur. It is up to the Certified Food Protection Manager to implement programs that promote good personal hygiene and proper food handling. They must work to proactively identify risks and hazards that can be controlled or eliminated, regularly monitor critical activities around the operation, take appropriate steps to correct improper procedures, verify that all policies are followed, train employees on how best to follow procedures, and periodically asses the system to make sure all is working effectively. This is also known as Active Managerial Control.

Personal hygiene is one of the most significant areas where preventative measures can readily be implemented. Cross-contamination can easily occur from direct hand contact or contact from soiled aprons or clothing. Employees should always put on a clean apron before starting their shift. If possible, provide an area with clean aprons and uniforms onsite where employees can change when they get to work.

Handwashing is without a doubt the most critical part of personal hygiene, a vital step towards the prevention of spreading pathogens. Food handlers should always wash hands after doing any of the following: 

  • Using the restroom
  • Touching the body or clothing
  • Coughing, sneezing, blowing their nose, or using a handkerchief or tissue
  • Eating, drinking, smoking, chewing gum or chewing tobacco
  • Handling soiled items
  • Handling raw meat, seafood or poultry
  • Taking out the garbage
  • Handling service animals
  • Handling chemicals
  • Before beginning a new task
  • Leaving and returning to the prep area
  • Handling money
  • Using electronic devices
  • Touching anything that may contaminate hands, like dirty equipment, work surfaces or cloths
  • Using hand antiseptic is not a substitute for thorough handwashing. If employees would like to use a hand sanitizer, it should be applied after washing hands.

Download our printable Handwashing Checklist here to keep on hand for quick reference.

Handwashing should occur in a sink specifically designated for such purposes, not in compartment or utility sinks, or sinks designated for food prep. Handwashing areas should include a hand sink with hot and cold running water, a sign to remind staff that all employees must wash hands, a paper towel dispenser and a trash can.

The handwashing process should take at least 20 seconds. Everyone should first wet their hands and arms with warm running water, apply soap, ensuring there is enough to build up a good lather, scrub hands and arms vigorously for 10-15 seconds, rinse thoroughly and dry with a single-use paper towel.

Using single-use gloves is also critical to the prevention of foodborne illness. These should be used in addition to handwashing, not as a substitute for it. These should always be worn when handling ready-to-eat food. Always wash hands before putting on gloves when starting a new task. You do not need to rewash hands each time you change gloves as long as you’re performing the same task and your hands have not become contaminated. Make sure to select the right size glove. Gloves that are too big will not stay on properly, and those too small risk tearing. When putting on, avoid touching as much as possible. Never blow into your gloves to help them fit, roll gloves to make them easier to put on, or wash and reuse them.

Food handlers must change their single-use gloves as soon as they become dirty or torn, before beginning a different task, after an interruption, after handling raw meat, seafood or poultry, or after four hours of continuous use.

Using color-coded utensils and cutting boards is an excellent way to prevent cross-contamination and cross-contact in the workplace. The color tells food handlers which piece they should use to prep. Traditionally, green has been used to indicate use for fruits and vegetables, yellow for raw poultry, blue for cooked food, white for dairy products, brown for fish and seafood, and red for raw meat. Many manufacturers have started producing purple products to indicate allergy sensitivities.

Agencies and Programs  

There are many national and local agencies responsible for ensuring safe food and equipment standards. Some common ones you’re likely to note include: 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

The FDA is responsible for inspecting all food except meat, poultry, and eggs. They also regulate all food transported across state lines and issues the Food Code, a science-based code that provides recommendations for food safety regulations. Many local health inspectors use the Food Code as their primary resource when inspecting commercial foodservice operations.

Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP; pronounced HASS-ip)

The HACCP program is designed to assist in active managerial control by implementing a system based on identifying key biological, chemical or physical hazards at specific points in the flow of food. To be effective, the program must be based on a written plan and specific to the facility’s menu, customers, equipment, processes, and overall operations. The seven steps to a HACCP program include:

  1. Conducting a hazard analysis
  2. Identifying the critical control points
  3. Establishing critical limits
  4. Determining proper monitoring procedures
  5. Executing corrective actions
  6. Drafting verification procedures
  7. Implementing a system for record-keeping and documenting procedures
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

The USDA regulates and inspects meat, poultry and eggs, as well as governs food crossing state lines or involves more than one state.

National Sanitation Foundation (NSF)

Described as “the world leader in standards development, product certification and risk-management for pubic health and safety,” NSF is a certification given to certain equipment that indicates it meets health standards and passes critical inspection at the facility, allows manufacturers to apply uniform construction methods to all NSF listed equipment, and provide health authorities and “united front or voice” to require basic elements of equipment sanitation. Opting for equipment that has an NSF label lets you know that the manufacturer complies with strict standards and procedures from extensive product testing and analysis through every aspect of its development.

Click here to learn more about what an NSF certification means.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Public Health Services (PHS)

The CDC and PHS assist the FDA and USDA and well as local health departments, investigating and conducting research into the causes of foodborne illness outbreaks.

Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL)

UL is a global, non-governmental company similar to NSF in that they develop standards for equipment to ensure they promote food safety. When a piece of equipment dons a UL label, the user can rest assured that the product has been thoroughly reviewed during its development and production.

Click here to learn more about what a UL certification means.

When it comes to food safety, there is no shortage of information and best practices. This is just a high-level overview. Visit our Resource Center or give us a call for more expert insight on running a commercial foodservice operation.  

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