Avoid these 5 things: Most common ways food is contaminated in a restaurant

July 20, 2017

The restaurant industry holds the health of its customers in its hands. Poor food safety practices can harm many diners in a short period of time, so it’s important to be alert for red flags. Seemingly simple mistakes can quickly add up to big costs in food waste and brand reputation damages.

To that end, here are five common food spoilage snafus — and how you can avoid them.

Temperature abuse

Temperature abuse happens when food spends too much time in the temperature “danger zone” of 41°F to 140°F, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Within this range, bacteria can multiply rapidly, so foods shouldn’t be kept in that range for more than two hours at a time. That time goes down to just one hour if the room or outside temperature is above 90°F.

USDA suggests that if hot foods can’t be served right away, they be kept at 140°F or above until they can be served. It’s also important to exercise caution in transporting food. Food shouldn’t be left on a hot loading dock during the unloading process.

What foods are most susceptible to temperature abuse? Primarily, items kept in the door of the refrigerator. The constantly changing temperature that comes with being swung out into the room, then shut in again, makes it hard for food to maintain a cold enough temperature to stave off bacterial growth.


Anything that comes into contact with food at any point must be kept clean. Doing so can prevent pathogens, like Salmonella or norovirus, from contaminating food. This includes utensils, platters, drying rags, cutting boards, containers, surfaces and so on.

Don’t forget about hands. Improperly washing hands, then handling food, can be a disaster waiting to happen. Properly washing hands involves using a plain soap and spending 20 seconds washing. Need a timer? Hum “Happy Birthday” from beginning to end twice.

Cross-contamination can also occur when rinse water from cleaning the outside of vegetables splashes to the post-cleaning area. It’s important to treat your rinse water with a food-safe sanitizer, and to monitor the strength of these sanitizers throughout the cleaning process, draining and refreshing the water when needed.

Unsafe ingredients

You may take perfect steps for food safety while the food is in your hands, but raw materials used in cooking can be introduced to food safety concerns before even entering the restaurant. Bacteria can be brought in on ingredients, and it only takes one contaminated piece of produce to spread to others.

Fruits and vegetables, especially melons and leafy greens, that haven’t been properly handled during harvest can bring pathogens into your restaurant. Ingredients may have also been temperature abused during transportation. It’s recommended that you get a Certificate of Analysis (COA) on all food coming in from outside.

Improper storage conditions

Be careful not to overlook the importance of storing dry goods in a cool, dark and dry place. Humidity should be below 15%. For items stored at room temperature, the recommended temperature is between 50°F and 70°F. Storage space should be kept clean, of course, and free of pests. To keep products safe from condensation or water damage, they should be at least six inches off the ground, 18 inches away from outer walls, and two feet away from the ceiling. When designing your storage plans, designate shelf space so that raw food and ingredients are never stored above ready-to-eat food.

You should keep food away from sunlight. Rays from the sun speed up oxidation, which causes food to degrade in quality and nutritional value. Light can affect food coloring (natural and artificial) and also artificial flavors, affecting the look and taste of some products.

Shipping damage

Spoilage can easily occur in food products during transportation to the restaurant if storage conditions are not monitored during transport. Raw meat might bump into other products, leading to unintended cross-contamination. Food could be overheated, causing spoilage or container damage (which might lead to other food being covered in sticky food or drink residue).

It hurts to toss out products, but if there is any risk that food safety has been compromised, it’s best to take steps to avoid any damaging foodborne illness outbreak. In cases where foodstuffs must be disposed of, composting and green waste disposal are mutually beneficial options.

For more on how Neogen can help the food service industry prevent the contamination of food, check out the services and testing solutions we offer.


Category: Food Safety, Food & Beverage, Pathogens