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I have been involved in the foodservice industry for most of my life, beginning when I was a child helping my grandparents in a small country store in Harrisonville, Pa. Folks would visit that store for gas or a quick bite to eat and sit on the front porch to chat. Of course, most of those old country stores no longer exist as they’ve been largely replaced by convenience stores.
At the beginning of their era, convenience stores were simply gas stations where customers could pick up something quick to eat. Over the past decade, the convenience store concept has become much more complex. It’s no longer a place where you fill up your tank and grab a hot dog and a candy bar. Convenience stores now have menus — and with menus come food safety responsibilities.
Convenience stores have become more than ever like restaurants. I’ve been involved in the “convenience store world” for years. From food safety training and developing HACCP plans to third-party audits and health inspections, I've done it all. Let’s just say, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly.
The one area of the business that could use the most improvement is better awareness of personal hygiene. Don’t misunderstand me; some organizations do a fantastic job of training their team members. Others, just don’t seem to understand the importance. Perhaps they don’t realize how easily or how quickly foodborne illnesses can happen due to poor personal hygiene.
Everyone assumes tragedies happen to the “other guy.” But what if the “other guy” is you? It won’t simply affect the unit where someone became ill. It will affect your entire brand, potentially causing your organization to go bankrupt and face prospective lawsuits. It’s not the type of national recognition anyone is seeking.
A few months ago, I was on my way into a convenience store to perform a health inspection. Upon my entry, I passed an employee next to the front door smoking a cigarette and holding a puppy. She finished her cigarette and walked into the unit, where she proceeded to prepare someone’s food without washing her hands or donning gloves. Needless to say, I stopped the food from being served, as there was potential for multiple foodborne illnesses in this situation. But what if I hadn’t been there to stop her?
Another time, I’d spent considerable time conducting food safety training, auditing and developing a HACCP plan for a convenience store chain. One evening, I received a panicked phone call from a company executive. It seems, even after the extensive training, one of the foodservice employees had been working for a week with diarrhea. Now there was viable concern that she may have a foodborne illness and customers may have been infected!
All of the protocols for restrictions and exclusions had been incorporated into their new policies and procedures, but they weren’t being followed. We took all of the proper precautions and waited for her test results from her doctor. Fortunately, it was not a foodborne illness, but the close call reminded this c-store chain’s staff about the importance of good hygiene at all times.
Recently, I was driving home late at night and I was starving. I pulled off the highway to grab a quick bite to eat and get some gas. I went into a convenience store and ordered a plain hot dog. The server — without putting on any gloves — picked up a hot dog, put it in a bun and placed it in the microwave. She then took my meal out of the microwave, and the hot dog slipped out of the bun and onto the counter. With her bare hands, she pushed the hot dog back into the bun.
Then, she turned around to get a pair of gloves. Her hands were moist from the hot dog, which she’d been toying with (MY HOT DOG!) and she couldn’t get the gloves apart, so she blew into the glove. She may as well have licked my food. Up until now, I’d just been quietly observing the situation (these circumstances give me great stories), but this was more than I could take. I didn’t take that hot dog, but I did get a good story of what not to do.
Personal hygiene is so very basic, yet so very essential. Handwashing with soap stops the spread of disease and can save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention. Each year, 19 million people get food poisoning due to improper handwashing.
Improper handwashing can lead to each of the “Big Six” foodborne illnesses: Hepatitis A, Shiga-toxin producing Escherichia Coli (STEC), Norovirus, Salmonella Typhi, Salmonella Non-Typhoidal (NTS), and Shigella, not to mention Staphylococcus Aureus and more.
Again, this mistake could potentially destroy your brand.
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “I don’t need to be in this food safety training class, all we serve is…” But I’ve got news for you. Your staff can make someone sick if they handle any food with contaminated hands (or gloves). This even has the potential to be deadly.
So, what’s an operator to do? Create a food safety culture focusing on food safety. Make it a priority. Your team will emulate your actions. Promote good personal hygiene, explaining why washing your hands properly is imperative.
Also, implement a standardized dress code. Clothing must be kept clean so workers don’t contaminate the food. Nobody should be preparing food in a hoodie they wear to carry out the trash or to the gym. Everyone should be wearing a clean apron as a protective covering over their uniforms or personal clothing.
Implement a double handwashing policy. Wash once in the restroom and again when returning to the work station. After all, they are touching the doorknobs that everyone prior to them touched, and who may not have washed their hands. Did you know the average door handle has about 360 types of bacteria on it?
Make certain your hot water is set at a minimum of 100 degrees for handwashing, you’ve got plenty of bubbly hand soap and an acceptable way for hand drying. And overall, make sure good hygiene is part of your company culture.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.