I love a good, oversized Chipotle burrito as much as the next glutton-for-overeating punishment. When the national-chain-restaurant champion of fresh food had to shut down 43 of its stores because of E. coli, salmonella and norovirus, I was disappointed. They were looked at as a pioneer in using fresh, locally sourced ingredients in individual stores—a lesson I’d hoped other restaurant chains would take notes on—and they kind of got egg on their face.
In the past two years, I’ve done a lot of work on food-safety issues, both through my writing and in my work on the farm. I’ve attended trainings, set up farm food-safety plans, and written about food safety on the farm and in the home—so I’ve probably watched Chipotle’s situation unfold with more interest than many of you. Chipotle recently held a national training day for every employee in every store, created a food-safety czar for the company and appears to be making changes that will prevent something like this from happening to them again.
From Chipotle’s food-safety wakeup call, here are six lessons that you can put to work in your own home and on your farm to reduce the chances of a nightmare like this unfolding in your life:
1. Take A Food-Safety Course
Anyone who works in a food-handling position in a food-service establishment has to go through food-safety training. These trainings are usually offered by your county health department, they usually only cost $10 or so, and they can be done online. I did a training when I worked at a farm-to-table restaurant one winter, and I actually learned some things.
Take one of these courses! Even if you’re just cooking at home for your friends and family, you might learn something here that would surprise you.
2. Avoid Cross-Contamination
Chipotle hasn’t been able to pinpoint the exact cause of the E. coli-related food-safety issues, but founder Steve Ells says the salmonella outbreak most likely came from cross-contamination from other foods—meaning fresh vegetables came in contact with uncooked meats, and the bacteria from the meat got on the vegetables.
Always wash your hands between handling meat and other food items. Use separate cutting boards for meat and other items. Store your meat in an enclosed container on the lowest shelf in your refrigerator so its juices don’t leak, and if the juices do leak, they’re less likely to contact something else.
3. Don’t Handle Food If You’re Sick
The norovirus spread from Chipotle stores probably came from sick employees. This is a tough thing to admit because people who work hourly jobs generally don’t have paid sick time, so they’re probably going to come to work when they’re sick. This is something I experienced on the farm, too. (Chipotle, incidentally, now gives workers paid sick time!)
If you’re sick and there’s any chance that your illness can be spread to others, you don’t need to be handling anyone’s food—on the farm or in the kitchen. This especially applies to illnesses that involve gastrointestinal issues!
4. Practice Common-Sense Food Safety
Food safety starts on the farm. Chipotle is providing funds for its food producers to improve implementation of their food-safety standards, so their ingredients are more likely to arrive at the store without danger.
Especially with the introduction of the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act rules last year, there is heaps of on-farm food-safety information out there, from conference sessions to web articles. Get your hands on these! You can’t believe the easy, common-sense food-safety things that you’re probably overlooking on your farm.
5. Wash Your Hands!
Hand-washing goes a long way. When I took the online food-handling course for the restaurant where I worked, the quiz at the end was kind of amusing. The answer for half of the questions was: “Wash your hands.” But it’s true—washing your hands is almost always the answer. This was emphasized during Chipotle’s food-safety training, too.
Wash your hands before you harvest vegetables. Wash your hands before you start cooking. Wash your hands if you stop cooking, answer the phone and go back to cooking. Washing your hands for 20 seconds with soap and warm water does wonders for reducing bacteria.
6. Sanitize Areas Where You Handle Food
During the work day, high-traffic/high-use areas of Chipotle kitchens get sanitized regularly. At the end of the work day, Chipotle kitchens get completely sanitized. When is the last time you sanitized your home kitchen? Granted, you don’t crank out thousands of meals per day, but I bet you still have rogue bacteria camping out in the corners.
Sanitize your kitchen and your harvest-packing area now and then. Maybe once a week. Maybe once a month. Pick a schedule that works for you to do a deep clean.
When it comes right down to it, there’s no way to eliminate food-safety risks, only to reduce them. Being aware of the risks and food-safety solutions is a big part of this process!
What other food-safety and food-handling guidelines do you have in your kitchen and on your farm? Share your ideas with us!