Continually reinforcing the principles of food safety is the highest priority for chefs and kitchen managers, who are on the frontlines of preventing foodborne disease. Marriott International accomplishes this on a global scale with a training and inspection program that transcends language and cultural barriers.

Ensuring safe, quality foods at foodservice and retail establishments is a daunting, day-to-day challenge for even the most modem facilities. But imagine the onus on the chef or manager when sensitive foods such as eggs might be delivered each morning by bicycle or purchased from pushcart vendors. Or picture the difficulties in eliminating pests and controlling temperatures in tropical regions where the thermometer bubbles and the humidity stifles. Such are but some of the vagaries encountered by kitchen staffs with the Marriott International organization, which operates 2,300 facilities in 60 countries throughout the world.

Coordinating an effective, formalized food safety program throughout this vast network of hotels and lodgings falls on the shoulders of Director of Quality Assurance John Schulz. Schulz works out of Marriott’s corporate offices in Washington, DC, but executive chefs from as far afield as Malaysia are a phone call away. “The executive chef is responsible at each site, and they report directly to me,” Schulz says. “He or she has got to be the leader. When the chef understands the products and the principles of food safety to a high degree and teaches it to his people, he gains their respect and establishes a comfort zone. It gives the chef the ability to be an expert in the eyes of his associates, which then gives him the authority he needs to run the kitchen.”

Audit and inspection data from every Marriott kitchen similarly is available to Schulz, who reviews and trends the information and updates procedures as necessary, or as dictated by other circumstances. All the company’s properties are certified to the ServSafe program, a food safety program developed by the Education Foundation of the National Restaurant Association that encompasses training seminars and materials covering temperature standards, cross-contamination and personal hygiene. Kitchens also are certified to Marriott standards, which are based on ServSafe but drill deeper. Chefs are recertified every three years because “the industry is so volatile that you really need to keep updated,” Schulz says.

It’s in the Details
One person who’s been around to see the industry change is Mike Minerd, a 31-year Marriott veteran and executive chef at Marriott Copley Place in Boston. Winner of this year’s JW Award of Excellence, which recognizes employee excellence and commitment to the job, Minerd oversees a kitchen staff of 110. They provide all dining services to the 1,200-room hotel, maintain a significant catering operation and also feed 950 hotel associates.

Minerd and Schulz both believe that training is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of instituting and maintaining a food safety program at the food- service level.

“You need to reinforce the awareness almost every day,” Minerd says. “People can become complacent when dealing with food and forget the grave responsibility to the public. So you have to include training as part of your daily routine. Even when I’m walking through the kitchen and saying hello to people I’m watching what they’re doing.”

There’s certainly a lot to watch, and to learn. At Marriott, the nuts and bolts of maintaining a safe kitchen - embodied in a 39-point checklist - go beyond color-coded cutting boards and strategically placed handwash stations. Sanitizer concentrations and dishwasher temperatures are checked every day. Terrycloth towels and metallic scouring pads are prohibited because they potentially can shed fibers into food. Refrigerators and freezers are meticulously maintained, and even maintenance engineers are ServSafe certified. Food handlers carry their own thermometers. At Minerd’s facility, microbiological conditions in the yogurt machine are checked once a month, and the pH of the rice in the sushi bar is spot checked.

Strict guidelines are in place for cooling and reheating foods; these are central to minimizing microbial activity in potentially high-risk foods. Cooked and leftover hot food must be cooled quickly from 140°F (60°C) to 70°F (21°C) within two hours and from 70°F (21°C) to 41°F (5°C) or below within an additional four hours. Potentially hazardous foods must be rapidly reheated to at least 165°F (74°C) within two hours. Essentially, the “danger zone” for these types of products is between 41°F (5°C) and 140°F (60°C) — food temperatures must be maintained outside this range. Further, Marriott guidelines stipulate that potentially hazardous foods left from “banquets and other uncontrolled situations” must be discarded.

As in all Marriott properties, Minerd’s staff also is responsible for cleaning, including the docks. Each month a staff member is chosen to be the sanitation manager; they oversee conditions in the kitchen and are given the authority to manage the sanitation process. Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) are emphasized heavily and encompass “very high standards of uniform compliance,” Schulz says.

Minerd holds daily 15-minute training sessions to keep the tenets of safe food handling fresh in everyone’s mind, and at weekly managers meetings, plans and actions on any deficiencies are discussed and people are assigned to make corrections. “The key things we need to get across to our associates are handwashing and hygiene, the principles of cooling and reheating properly, and to ‘cover, date and mark’ all foodstuffs. We’re always reinforcing this,” Minerd says.

Go to the Tape
Food safety, sanitation and employee training have been at the top of the Marriott agenda since J.W. Marriott himself used to conduct white-glove inspections of the root beer stands on which the company was founded in 1927. The ball was set in motion for ‘Great Food, Safe Food,’ Marriott’s formal food safety training program, in 1987, when corporate management recognized the need to “design a comprehensive food safety training program to use worldwide,” Schulz says. “We had a management certification program, but we needed to bridge the gap to our hourly associates.”

The ‘Great Food, Safe Food’ training regimen comprises an animated video, facilitator guides, workbooks and certificates to present to participants at the completion of the training. Based on HACCP principles for the foodservice industry, the program covers food handling, receiving and storage, cleaning and pest control. To date, it has been used successfully to train 40,000 Marriott kitchen employees worldwide. Marriott recently has made the program available to the entire foodservice industry.

“One of our chefs in Hong Kong was using cue cards with cartoons to teach his staff about the elements of preparing safe food, so we built from that,” Schulz says of the program’s inception. The project grew as “we decided to really invest some money into a good production.” A story board was created, animators and video producers were brought on site, for whom staff members acted out their tasks and routines. Lesson plan designers worked hand in     hand with this crew to develop the printed material.

“It essentially covers HACCP-based food handling,” Schulz says. “It is built off of our HACCP program, which is specifically designed for lodging and has been endorsed by FDA. Our three goals with the program were to make food safety best practices understandable, no matter what language the associate speaks; make the idea of more palatable and fun, and to have longevity in the program, so that you could view the tape five years from now and, with minimal manipulation, it would still be relevant.”

The program was tested initially for four weeks in China, Malaysia and the Philippines. At the conclusion, participants were asked to name 25 things they gleaned the program. “The results were very encouraging,” Schulz says. “People really get the gist of it, even without any instruction. Before, our training programs were written for our facilities in the U.S., then rehashed for international properties. We’ve taken away the language barrier and issues of bias and now have a framework for letting each kitchen teach itself”

Diagnostics for the Kitchen
‘Great Food, Safe Food’ is just one component of the training toolbox for Minerd, who says the company’s 39- point food safety checklist doubles nicely as a teaching aid. Not only does Minerd inspect his kitchen using the checklist, he involves his sous chef, junior managers and even hourly associates. “This way, we train as we inspect,” he says.

The inspection incorporates key elements of FDA’s Food Code, covering HACCP, proper cooling and reheating, storage, sanitation and personal hygiene. At the Marriott Copley Place, self-inspections are conducted on a 28-day cycle using the checklist. Results recorded, kept on file and accessible for 12 months. These checklists essentially are “self diagnostics for the property,” Schulz says. Corporate looks at trends in annual audit scores, “not whether or not someone passed the test.”

Schulz concurs self inspection also makes the middle line managers part of the program, so that “instead of just doing something, they understand the depth of what they are doing.”

Marriott is moving toward being able to compile self-inspection data on the Internet to trend both troublesome issues and areas of consistency among sites. One goal, Schulz says, is to establish “linkage in operational procedures.” This would permit cooling and reheating procedures to be better coordinated, for example.

In addition to self-inspection, Marriott facilities are audited annually by Strasburger and Siegel, a contract lab and consultancy based in Hanover, MD. The key areas covered are product maintenance and storage at the facility, purchasing and handling. These are crucial internationally, because “in many regions you don’t have governing bodies like there are in the U.S.,” Schulz says. “You need to have procedures in place to maintain your products, and for many parts of the world, this means more than just looking for USDA shields or vendor documentation. For example, you need to teach the basics of what to look for when you crack an egg open.”

Marriott corporate oversees certifications of the auditors, who spend four to eight hours at each property, reviewing both operations and documentation. “We rely heavily on our self-inspections. The auditors spend a lot of time going through documentation and verifying that there is a procedural understanding among the staff,” Schulz says.

The Marriott audit form, as well as the inspection checklist, is divided into five main areas: food safety practices, employee practices, programs and training, maintenance and pest control. Points are awarded for various observations within each of these areas, for a total of 100 possible points on the audit Scores are divided into green, or excellent; clear, or good; yellow, or marginal; red, or failure, indicating a reinspection within 90 days; and a critical failure, indicating a reinspection within 45 days. Forms include an auditor survey for the facilities staff to rate the audit and the auditor.

Minerd says the audits can be a valuable learning experience. “I remember during one inspection an order came in. We had it on a cart and were waiting to go up from the dock on the elevator, and we looked up and there above us was an unprotected fluorescent light. This got noted on the inspection, and was corrected. It’s these types of little things that you remember and learn from.”

Managing Risk
In addition to sanitation and temperature management, Schulz believes that an important part of risk management, as well as producing high-quality entrees, is purchasing the right products from approved sources. “Our chefs probably are the most highly educated culinarians in the industry,” he says. “Corporate sets blanket guidelines regarding purchasing, and chefs institute their own programs.”

“We use only Marriott-approved vendors, which are held to the same standards that we are and are audited against our food safety checklist,” Minerd says. “They know the program and what is expected of them.”

Schulz adds, “We’re just finalizing our vendor certification program internationally. Currently we do formal certification in markets where it is possible. Our chefs have strong relations with the vendors. They know their markets and suppliers.”

A list of banned products is maintained, and is updated as conditions dictate. “The legislation and regulations can only do so much, and we still need to take an assumable risk. We adjust ours as we go,” Schulz says. “We had banned raw oysters for awhile, for example, but now the ban has been limited to Gulf oysters and we permit Atlantic oysters from water below 70°F.

“The chefs have to understand high- risk products, but they also need the leniency to do what is necessary to take care of the customer. We do all we can to reduce risk to manageable level,” he says.

“As an industry, we need to watch the continuing growth of emerging and more resistant pathogens, and the globalization of world markets, which has led to the year-round availability of foods from less developed countries,” Schulz says. “Proper food handling will only grow in fundamental importance, and educating people on how to make the right decisions on food—from what to buy to how to handle it—it is simply critical.”

Bruce Flickinger is a freelance writer specializing in the food and pharmaceutical industries.