In addition to the risk of environmental contamination from Listeria monocytogenes, product temperature abuse, compromised food contact surfaces and unwanted allergen transfers or mislabeled food, one of my biggest fears that keeps me up at night is the daunting task of controlling, educating and monitoring the personal hygiene and handwashing behaviors of food handlers.

A reoccurring hypothetical nightmare of some types of viral or bacterial infection spreading among the masses from contaminated food or an employee you represent would have any food safety practitioner tossing and turning in their sleep. Unfortunately, this bad dream has become reality for some organizations in past foodborne illness outbreaks.

The health and well-being of food handlers and proper hygiene practices often get overlooked in the retail food industry. The employee needs a paycheck to provide for his or her family, and will often neither seek medical attention if ill nor sacrifice missing work if not feeling well. Sometimes, there are cultural barriers or lack of influence outside and inside the workplace that impact proper personal hygiene. Foodservice operators need said employee regardless, as they have a business to run and will often demand the employee show up, even when ill. Labor constraints these days are not conducive to providing any extra breathing room in the work schedule. Food safety, sanitation and customer service suffer when there are not enough employees. On top of that, the broken hand sink is too expensive to fix, and the food safety training? Who needs that? Handwashing? Really? That takes too much time and no one does it anyway. You want me to wear a hat? Why? I’m bald. Does anyone else realize that dripping sweat during food preparation is a problem? Of course, these scenarios are just that, scenarios, but if you don’t think they are all part of the big picture and part of reality in the retail food industry, you are sorely mistaken.

What Can Be Done?
Whatever happened to “Best Practices?” If management is merely talking the talk and not walking the walk, employees will just think that the unsanitary behavior is acceptable. Then a cycle of food safety negligence develops and continues.

In every case of coaching, training and mentoring food handlers about food safety violations, the risk must be fully explained. If the employee does not understand and was never properly trained, then where is the accountability? Illness, potential life-threatening symptoms, liability, reputation damage, financial loss and lack of employment must be addressed as well, rather than dictating “because management told you so” as a rationale. Sometimes, to fully explain the magnitude of noncompliance, I always fall back on a true story of contamination.

Everyone talks about government, regulation and how to eliminate foodborne illness, but what the industry needs to do is improve the oversight, training and funds to facilitate change. Part of the solution does not have to be complicated; it just needs to revisit the basic principles of food safety.

Best Practices
Two of those basic principles are proper handwashing and hygiene.

Believe it or not, there are food handlers out there who do not understand the handwashing process, some who couldn’t care less and some who come from conditions not conducive to implement proper handwashing. Countries lacking sanitation infrastructure are probably not the best places to learn modern hygiene.

Food handlers should be physically shown how to wash their hands as part of their initial training on day 1, even before they touch anything else. Sounds basic, right?

I try to share facts about handwashing with food handlers whenever I get the chance. This has to be done tactfully. I lay out some of this information after it is stated that proper handwashing is company policy and improper handwashing is a “Critical” or “Priority” food safety violation from the health department:

•    80% of communicable diseases are transferred by touch.

•    Touching food with contaminated hands spreads foodborne illness.

•    Only 20% of people wash their hands before preparing food.

•    Fewer than 75% of women and 50% of men wash their hands after going to the bathroom.

•    Every time a toilet is flushed with the lid up, a fine mist containing bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus is spread over an area of 6 m2. The area around sinks in public bathrooms is 90% covered in such bacteria.

•    For every 15 seconds spent washing hands, 10 times more bacteria is removed.

•    Most bacteria on our hands are on the fingertips and under the nails.

•    Most people wash the palms of their hands and miss everything else.

•    The bacteria count is highest on the dominant hand. Yet right-handed people wash their left hand more thoroughly than their right hand, and vice versa.

•    Only 20% of people dry their hands after washing.

•    Reusable cloth towels harbor millions of bacteria. Disposable paper towels are the most sanitary means of drying hands.

•    Handwashing and hand hygiene initiatives greatly reduce the number of absences, sick leaves and lost productivity.[1]

Proper Gloving
Proper glove usage is also necessary. Gloves are like skin and should be changed whenever they become contaminated or torn. Hands should be properly washed when gloves are changed. Food handlers often forget that and don’t realize that they may have recontaminated their hands in the process. A good basic example is when raw animal proteins, such as poultry, are processed, then the processing worker switches to a task involving a ready-to-eat food, such as a sandwich. Used gloves need to be discarded properly as well and not end up as a potential physical contaminant. I have seen discarded gloves baked into cakes.

Personal Hygiene Practices
Personal hygiene has a variety of protocols[2] when it comes to food safety, not just handwashing and glove use. Employees processing food when sick, unhygienic food handlers, personal food/beverage or other items in a prep area, lack of hair restraints and wearing of soiled clothing are all problems when it comes to food safety.

Sick employees processing food is a concern. The understanding of “The Big Five Pathogens” and the potential for contamination should be a priority not only for management but for the rank and file as well. Employees diagnosed with infection by hepatitis A, E. coli, Salmonella, Shigella and norovirus should not be handling food and must be cleared medically by a physician before returning to work. Norovirus leads the list. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “50% of all food-related illness is caused by norovirus. In many cases, sick food handlers were involved in spreading the virus.”[3] Make sure you share that statistic along with the understanding that it is a potential “Critical” or “Priority” health department violation.

Employees who handle food must commit to the following: shower/bathe daily, wear clean garments, keep their fingernails clean and trimmed, and properly cover any open wounds. Don’t forget about excessive facial acne, large pimples or a purulent boil as a potential sources of staphylococcal food poisoning.

That stuff is unsettling.

Forget about how the restrooms look as a customer gauge of cleanliness in the retail food industry; it’s how the em-ployee looks.

Hair restraints are required in food prep areas and should cover bangs, long ponytails and beards. Hats should be stored properly, not above food or a prep surface. Since hair is the number one physical hazard in food, proper precautions should be taken—it should not be a surprise ingredient in the meal.

Eating and drinking should not be permitted in food processing areas. Not only is it unsanitary, it’s also rude, especially if it is done in front of customers. A bartender with a mouthful of quesadilla while serving cocktails is a turnoff. So is chewing gum and spitting in food prep areas. Unwanted flying saliva has its consequences.

Social media these days can make any negligent personal hygiene or handwashing practice a potential viral sensation. All it takes is footage from a cellphone of some food handler doing something nasty to cause a viral, reputation-damaging newsworthy event. Remind your staff that they are on stage in front of customers, even in the kitchen, and especially in front of a new employee.

A return to the fundamentals of food safety—handwashing and personal hygiene—should be executed and followed up day in and day out in retail foodservice operations. Once the behavior slips, it can become cancerous and affect others. Remember, how this information is presented to food handlers is just as important as the message. It should be done tactfully, on a level that everyone can understand and with a sense of urgency: Doing it may just save your foodservice establishment from a potential self-inflicted nightmare.   

David Walpuck is a certified professional and trainer in food safety from The National Environmental Health Association and administrator for The National Registry of Food Safety Professionals.

2. Handlers/Personal Hygiene Guide (From Linn County).pdf.