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Every School Needs A Salad Bar AND A Commitment To Operating It Safely

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 27, 2010

It is said that no good deed goes unpunished, and the initiative of the United Fresh Foundation to place “A Salad Bar in Every School” is most emphatically a good deed.

The industry is behind the initiative virtually 100% because, unlike the proposals for a generic promotion program, this plan is a specific proposal that can be done incrementally and that can be shown to increase produce sales.

We still need better research to know whether and to what degree it actually increases consumption. With school feeding programs it is one thing to get it on the menu, another thing entirely to get it consumed. Good studies are also needed to assess whether eating a salad at lunch is habit-forming and thus increases the likelihood of consumption of a salad at dinner or whether it makes consumption at other day-parts less likely.

Still, the bottom line is so dramatic: a school that bought no broccoli florets suddenly becomes a customer; students who ate a hot dog or bologna sandwich for lunch are now getting access to some healthy produce. It seems highly likely that this is a win for the industry, a win for public health and a win for the children.

Which is why, as an industry, we need to be proactive to prevent a foodborne illness from bringing the whole program to a catastrophic halt.

If you attended The United Fresh Produce Executive Development Program at Cornell University, you were given a pass to the student dining hall in the basement of the building where the program was held so that attendees could get lunch. It was a terrific venue showing the enormous variety of healthy options available to today’s college kids. As you walked in the hall, the hot food was on the left and included things such as a baked potato bar and a grill. On the right was a really wonderful “make your own” salad option where students could select the ingredients for their salad. It is notable however that though these college students could select any item on the salad bar, they couldn’t touch. All the ingredients were put together by gloved foodservice workers who assured things were kept sanitary.

It is the trend all over. Supermarkets have pulled out a lot of salad bars but the new ones are often attended. Publix, in its new Greenwise division, features a wonderful “make your own salad” bar — but, once again, the customers can point: “I want some olives, a little more carrots please, skip the hot peppers” — but they can’t touch. That is reserved for foodservice workers wearing gloves.

These gloved workers are expensive; Cornell and Publix felt they needed to put them in for sanitary reasons.

The research available is sketchy, but indicates there is cause for concern regarding salad bars and foodborne illness. A study conducted by Katherine Diaz-Knauf, Erica Favil, Daisy Vargas and Robert Sommer from the UC Davis Center for Consumer Research published in the Journal of College & University Foodservice found the following:

“…direct consumer access may contribute to health-related problems resulting from eating contaminated foods. Users of a salad and burrito bar in a university restaurant were observed to identify behavioral and equipment-related problems. Findings show that there is the potential for health related problems resulting from spillage and touching food.”

The Los Angeles Times wrote up another UC Davis Consumer Research Center study:

Salad bars can be the source of potential public health problems, according to a recent study of the popular restaurant phenomenon by the UC Davis Consumer Research Center.

These self-service medleys of cold vegetables and fruit were surveyed in 40 restaurants throughout Northern California, and more than 370 customers were observed in the process of filling their plates.

The report found that there were numerous lapses in sanitation practices and opportunities for accidental contamination.

The UC Davis research team of Susan Carstens and Robert Sommer stated that frequent problems included “people touching the food with their hands, sampling salad dressings with their fingers, eating from plates while in line and returning to the salad bar with used utensils and plates.”

Inadequate serving equipment was commonplace and often led to food overflowing from containers or falling off plates.

“This led to people licking their fingers or putting food back (with their hands),” the report stated.

The authors suggest that better restaurant supervision and more signs dictating common health practices might help reduce the problems. However, there was some realization that consumers with poor food-handling practices in the home are unlikely to modify their behavior in restaurants.

“A lot of people don’t realize that foods such as cherry tomatoes and celery sticks, which are ‘finger foods’ at home, aren’t necessarily to be eaten that way in a restaurant,” Sommer stated.

No less a trio than food safety authorities, Craig W. Hedberg, PhD; Kristine L. MacDonald, MD, MPH; Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH — all then of the Minnesota Department of Health — specifically mentioned the “widespread availability of salad bars” as having “increased the potential for exposure to a wide variety of enteric pathogens, both foreign and domestic.”

Bill Marler, the noted plaintiff’s attorney specializing in foodborne illnesses cases has declared “I don’t go to salad bars” and points out that he has handled many foodborne illness cases involving salad bars over the years:

When I first heard about an E. coli outbreak tied to a buffet-restaurant, I must admit I was not too surprised — foodborne illness outbreaks certainly have been tied to buffets and salad bars over the years. A few cases we have done:

E. coli
China Buffet
Finley School District
Gold Coast Produce
King Garden
Olive Garden
Sizzler

Salmonella
Brook-Lea Country Club
Chili’s
Golden Corral
Linh’s Bakery
Old South Restaurant
Western Sizzlin’
Wyndham Anatole Hotel

In investigating Emerging Foodborne Diseases, a study by S.F. Altekruse, M.L. Cohen, and D.L. Swerdlow of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mentioned human behavioral changes as a key factor: “Fast-food restaurants and salad bars were rare 50 years ago but are primary sites for food consumption in today’s fast-paced society”

And salad bars were the site for the first known bioterrorism attack in the United States in what came to be known as the 1984 Rajneeshee Bioterror Attack:

The 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack was the food poisoning of more than 750 individuals in The Dalles, Oregon, United States through the deliberate contamination of salad bars at ten local restaurants with salmonella. A leading group of followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho) had hoped to incapacitate the voting population of the city so that their own candidates would win the 1984 Wasco County elections. The incident was the first bioterrorism attack in the United States, and the single largest bioterrorist attack in United States history. The attack is one of only two confirmed terrorist uses of biological weapons to harm humans.

…Seven hundred and fifty-one people contracted salmonellosis as a result of the attack, of whom 45 were hospitalized. There were no fatalities. …

Now, despite all this, any rational analysis would have to say the food safety problems posed by salad bars are minimal. There are aesthetic issues… many salad bars are simply unsanitary and people, especially children, do all kinds of gross things at salad bars.

That doesn’t mean there is a significant food safety problem — but then again, viewed as a percentage of servings sold, we have never had significant food safety problems in produce — and that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a major issue.

Salad bar food safety issues also have the advantage of being local. When a bagged salad is indicated, everyone wonders if they are about to get sick because they ate some bagged salad. If a foodborne illness breaks out due to a salad bar — it is due to a particular salad bar and those who didn’t eat there probably don’t worry — although they may hesitate next time there is a salad bar option.

It is also true that even if there is a food safety issue with salad bars, it may be overridden by the great benefit of having children eat more healthfully.

Still, if even one child is found to fall seriously ill or to, God forbid, die, as a result of eating from a salad bar donated or funded through this United Fresh initiative, we can all imagine the headlines and the report on 60 Minutes.

So the industry should do all it can to make sure these salad bars are used properly, especially since children, who are both more likely to do unsafe things and more vulnerable to foodborne illness, will be the ones eating.

There are various steps that can make salad bars safer. We probably can’t insist on gloved foodservice attendants as most schools just don’t have those budgets, but the National Restaurant Association has a four-step recommendation for How To Keep Salad Bars Safe:

A salad bar can be a valuable addition to a restaurant. It adds versatility to the menu and can even serve as a restaurant’s visual focal point. But operating a safe and effective salad bar or buffet requires a lot of work. Food safety needs to be a main ingredient of any salad bar to prevent foodborne illnesses. A sparkling-clean salad bar featuring fresh products will also win over customers and create good word of mouth. Here are some techniques for keeping your salad bar up to standards.

Section 1: Prep Work
Section 2: Set-Up Procedures
Section 3: Temperature Control
Section 4: Supervision

You can read the whole piece here but we’ll excerpt just the section on supervision:

Keeping a salad bar in tip-top shape requires constant maintenance. Assign an adequate number of employees to supervise the salad bar throughout the shift. Staffers on salad-bar duty should:

• Keep all surface areas clean. Employees should quickly clean up any spills. Staffers should be made aware of the dangers of spreading germs through wiping cloths. Studies have shown that wiping cloths can contain enough foodborne microorganisms to make people sick. To prevent this from happening, store wiping cloths in sanitizing solution at the proper concentration at all times.

• Make sure customers obey safety procedures. Watch children closely, because they’re more apt to reach into a food bin.

• Bring out clean plates and replenish foods properly. Never add freshly prepared food to food already on display. Put out only as much food as will be served in a short period of time to lessen the chance of spoilage and contamination. Use shallow salad bins that need to refilled frequently.

Keeping your salad bar up to standards is essential for your customers’ safety as well as to maintain your restaurant’s high-quality reputation. The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation offers products and courses to help train employees in safe food-storage and -handling procedures.

Getting children in the habit of eating salad is such a great idea that some risk is worth taking, but we should be just as interested in making sure that every school knows how to conduct, and commits to conduct, proper food safety procedures on a salad bar as we are in getting them into every school.

Now United staff does speak to schools about safe operation of the equipment before making any donations but that process is informal and, perhaps, not rigorous enough to both keep the children safe down the road and to protect the program in the event of some future problem.

We may want to consider insisting on a more formal agreement before we make a donation. Why couldn’t we partner with the National Restaurant Association to produce a computer-aided training module on salad bar safety and make maintaining a person at each location who has passed this test a condition for receiving a free salad bar?

Another thought — many of the items that cause food safety problems on salad bars are not produce items at all — but are mayonnaise-based salads or proteins. When Coca-Cola gives a store a cooler — you can only put Coke products in it. Could we insist that only produce be put in our donated salad bars?

And what about the children themselves? Isn’t this a great time to start teaching them about food safety? Could the United Fresh Foundation offer an online salad bar food safety quiz designed to teach children proper conduct when eating off shared food venues and send every kid who passes it a digital certificate for them to print out?

Things happen in life and the industry should not allow fears about food safety to kill great programs. We should, however, position ourselves so that when the bad things happen, we can stand up proudly and say we did everything possible to prevent bad outcomes and we are proud that we have done a lot of good for the children of America.

That means when we put a salad bar in a school, we make sure the school is both educated on what it takes to operate a salad bar safely and committed to staff it in such a way that it will be kept clean and sanitary, that adequate staff will be available so that the behavior of the students will be properly monitored and the opportunity for consumption of fresh produce is maximized while the opportunity for a foodborne illness outbreak is minimized.

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