CHICAGO — Produce accounts for 46% of the estimated 48 million foodborne illnesses reported annually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Food safety demands higher standardsLeafy greens account for 41% of the produce-related illnesses, said John Hanlin, vice president food safety and public health research and development for Ecolab, Eagan, Minn., at a May 18 workshop during the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show.

Because there is no single processing intervention that can mitigate produce risk, food safety challenges will continue, said Alex Malone, director quality assurance for Yum Brand’s Taco Bell Corp., Irvine, Calif.

He has taken Taco Bell beyond industry standards in order to mitigate risk, which he said begins with frequent, repetitive training that includes senior management, supervisors, crew leads, irrigation workers and harvest crew.

In the past few years, Taco Bell has increased standard field testing from the required 60 samples per 10 acres to 60 samples per acre, and in a more thorough zigzag pattern than the standard “Z” pattern, which assures greater field coverage and that the high-risk four borders are sampled at all times, he said.

Rather than just sample one lettuce leaf, per normal procedures, Taco Bell now requires sampling of the inner, outer and wrapper lettuce leaves.

In the processing plant, the company has upgraded chlorination requirements to include continuous measurement of chlorine levels and auto-inject from multiple injection points. An auto-stop is required if the chlorine amount falls below a certain level, and full submersion of all produce in the flume is required to assure 100% chlorination.

All this requires working with suppliers.

“This is essential. If we don’t work together, people are going to get sick,” Malone said, noting he encourages company officials to join him in looking at these and other higher standards as an insurance policy.

“We must all change our approach from industry following to industry defining, from incremental thinking to break-through thinking, from a singular approach to a collaborative approach,” he said.

Restaurants on the campus of College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, Ill., welcome health inspectors as sources of food safety education, said the school’s chef-instructor, culinary and hospitality management David Kramer.

“Know your supplier. Visit your vendors to inspect their facility. Don’t rely on word of mouth. Ask what systems are in place for traceability if and when there is a product recall. Inspect trucks and drivers when they arrive at the back door,” he said.

Kramer has implemented employee food safety standards, which include requiring employees to take off their aprons before entering the restroom or changing their aprons after they leave the restroom.

“Employees need to be coached every day,” he said.