Anyone who’s been to Utah during the summer knows it can get hot.
Temperatures between June and August in the Beehive State have averaged at least 100°F every year since 2015. In 2020, the statewide temperature average for June–August hit a whopping 120°F.
That kind of heat can create additional food safety challenges for food handlers and managers in Utah.
Common summer food safety challenges
In a 2017 study of food code violations that occurred during 2016, the Utah Department of Health discovered four violations were reported more frequently during the summer:
- Improper cold-holding temperatures
- Improper cooling methods used
- Thermometers not used or inaccurate
- Chemicals improperly identified, stored, and used
To keep food safe during a Utah summer, it’s important to understand what each of these violations means, how it could happen, and what you can do to prevent it.
Improper cold-holding temperatures
“Cold-holding” is the official term for perishable ready-to-eat food that’s kept in a refrigerator or freezer. If you work at a convenience store or grocery, this could look like a refrigerated display case of individually packaged fruit salads, or perhaps a freezer full of ice cream bars.
At a quick-service restaurant, cold-held food might include refrigerated side dishes or drinks. For a full-service restaurant, it may be chilled pasta salad in a buffet line. You might even have a soft-serve ice cream machine.
Condiments are also common cold-held food items. Think about a self-service hot dog or salad bar — that pickle relish and house dressing have to stay cold!
Cold-held food must stay at or below 41°F to prevent foodborne pathogens from growing to dangerous levels. If it gets above 41°F, germs can multiply to dangerous levels in as little as four hours. If you suspect cold-held food has been outside the safe temperature zone that long, you should throw it away.
You can prevent this violation at your establishment by doing three simple things. First, make sure you use appropriate cold-holding equipment for food. Cold-holding equipment is specifically designed to maintain food temperature.
Second, invest in a cooling system for your establishment and make sure your facility is well ventilated, including inside the kitchen. When the ambient temperature of your establishment is hot, it makes it more difficult to maintain cold-holding temperatures.
Third, train your employees to check the temperature of cold-held food regularly using a food thermometer. Even if your equipment has a built-in thermometer, you shouldn’t rely on it completely. If you or your employees notice a discrepancy between the two thermometers, your equipment might need repairs.
Improper cooling methods used
Did you know that cooling food improperly can make people sick just as surely as undercooking it? As food cools, it passes through the temperature danger zone (41–135°F) when pathogens grow the fastest. Basically, if you take too long to cool food to a safe temperature, the resulting level of germs can make it unsafe to eat.
To help prevent this problem, the FDA recommends using a method of cooling called the two-stage cooling process. As the name suggests, this method cools food in two stages. The entire process should take no more than six hours.
In the first stage, food handlers must reduce the food’s temperature to 70°F in two hours or less. Why 70°F? Bacteria can double in as little as 20 minutes on foods between 70°F and 135°F.
After the food has cooled to 70°F, food workers should focus on getting it out of the danger zone completely. The second stage calls for employees to cool food to 41°F in the remaining time.
For small batches of food, often the only thing employees need to do is put it into the refrigerator with the lid loosely fastened, allowing steam to escape. Just remember to put the lid on securely after the food has cooled.
Large batches of food are more difficult to cool safely because the food on the edges of a pot or pan inevitably cools faster than food in the center. Here are some ideas for how you can accomplish two-stage cooling for large amounts of food:
- Divide the food into smaller portions before putting it into the fridge. Use containers that are 4 inches deep or less.
- If possible, stir the food to help even out cooling. This works best with loose foods like rice and soup. You can stir with a regular spoon or with an ice paddle.
- Give the food an ice bath by surrounding the container with ice water. Ideally, the water level should be higher than the top level of food, but not so high that it leaks into the container.
- If possible, add ice as an ingredient to food.
- Use a blast chiller or tumbler, which are appliances designed to cool large amounts of food quickly. The machines work for both liquid and solid foods.
Thermometers not used or inaccurate
The third common challenge for Utah food workers in summer is that thermometers are either inaccurate or not used. It’s important to note that outdoor temperatures have a much less direct influence on this violation. In other words, outdoor temperatures shouldn’t affect your thermometers’ accuracy or whether you use them.
In its study, the Utah Department of Health theorized that this violation may crop up more often during the summer because health inspectors are simply more aware of the problem. For example, if they’ve already noted problems with cold-holding and cooling in your establishment, they’re probably more likely to double-check your thermometers.
Regardless of the time of year, make sure you’re providing a sufficient number of food thermometers for your employees to use. Also, take time to train your team on how to use them. After all, they’re only required to take food handlers permit training once every three years. If they don’t use a thermometer regularly, your staff may forget how to do so.
It might be a good idea to share a brief thought or do a quick activity involving thermometers on a regular basis, like once a quarter. Our stand-up training guide about taking food temperatures can help. It includes facts you can share, a video you can show, activity ideas, and downloadable posters.
Food thermometers are an essential tool to help make sure the food you serve is safe. Don’t just check the temperature of a freshly cooked dish like rotisserie chicken, hamburger patty, or steak. Make sure you’re using one to monitor cold-held food and hot-held food. It can also help you with safe cooling and reheating.
Of course, using a thermometer won’t do you any good unless it’s measuring food temperatures correctly. If you don’t already have a policy in place for regularly testing and calibrating thermometers, you should consider making one.
There are two common ways you can test your thermometer: the boiling point method and the freezing point method. If you notice an issue, you should be able to adjust the thermometer to correct it.
Chemicals improperly identified, stored, and used
Like the thermometer violation, it’s a little unclear why improper use and storage of chemicals would be reported more often during the summer. The Utah Department of Health simply stated that “more data is needed before formulating a rationale” to explain the frequency.
Whether this violation truly occurs more often during the summer or inspectors just notice it more isn’t important, however. The important thing is to take the reminder of chemical safety to heart.
Food workers likely use chemicals a lot at your establishment to sanitize utensils, dishes, and other food-contact surfaces like cooking equipment and countertops. You may mix your own chemical solutions, use off-the-counter products, or do a mixture of both.
Chemical use can be divided into three phases: preparing, applying, and storing. If you mix your own solutions, make sure it’s to the correct concentration. Use test strips to check that it’s strong enough to kill germs but not so strong that it could harm the employees using it.
Before you apply a sanitizing chemical, make sure the surface you’re cleaning is free from any large food particles. This applies to washing dishes in a three-compartment sink as well as cleaning equipment in place. Don’t use chemicals around food.
When storing chemicals, keep them in a closet or room that’s separate from food and food-contact surfaces. Each chemical should be clearly labeled, including spray bottles. Never store chemicals above food or food equipment.
Our Use Chemicals Safely poster provides a good summary of these points. Feel free to use it in your establishment.
In summary, Utah’s high summer temperatures can create special challenges for food workers. But you can help keep food safe by ensuring that your employees get their required food handlers permit and then following up on any food code violations you notice.
— Jessica Pettit