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County's food handlers schooled in safety

| Thursday, Nov. 13, 2003

Sylvia Mayercheck, a health inspector for Allegheny County, conducted this little experiment Wednesday with 50 food-service workers seeking certification in proper food handling.

Mayercheck had them close their eyes and point in the direction they thought was north.

The lesson• Food safety shouldn't be a stab in the dark. Everyone might have his own methods, but in the end, the scientifically proven way is always the best.

Mayercheck and other instructors try to convey that message each year to thousands of food-service workers who take part in Allegheny County's 10-year-old Food Protection Certification Program.

Any establishment that prepares food must have at least one county-certified food-service worker present at all times, said instructor and health inspector Cathy Ammon. Allegheny County has about 5,000 restaurants, Health Department spokesman Dave Zazac said. When other food-serving establishments -- such as catering services, schools and group homes -- are added, the number tops 8,500.

The two-day certification seminar began yesterday in Cheswick. The course teaches proper methods for every step of food handling, from the initial contact with the food to storing it. The first day of the class introduced the workers to the problem of food-borne infections, such as the hepatitis A outbreak in Beaver County. Seventy-six million cases of food-borne illness occur in America each year. Five thousand of those cases result in death, Mayercheck said.

One of the largest hepatitis A outbreaks in the country is playing out in neighboring Beaver County, where 340 confirmed cases of hepatitis A are linked to the Chi-Chi's Mexican Restaurant in the Beaver Valley Mall. One restaurant patron, West Aliquippa resident Jeffrey Cook, died Friday after he contracted the virus and had a liver transplant.

"We've all heard what's in the news," Mayercheck told the class. "In this day and age, we have to make our product safe. It is imperative that we have a safe product because your reputation is on the line."

The model Mayercheck uses to certify food handlers is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Model Food Code, a food handler's bible of how to keep food safe and kitchens clean.

"It's science, it works, it works every time," Mayercheck said.

Unsanitary imported foods, an increase in the consumption of restaurant food and unclean "megamarkets" have contributed to the rise of food-borne illnesses in the past decade. Most outbreaks of food-borne illness are caused by fruits, vegetables and ready-to-eat foods, Mayercheck said, but foods such as potatoes, rice and pasta also can host harmful bacteria if not properly prepared and handled.

Mayercheck presented four basic principles that food handlers should use to prevent food-borne illness:

  • Storing food at proper temperatures. Food must be cooked, held, reheated and stored at certain temperatures.

  • Avoiding cross-contamination of foods. Kitchen services and equipment should be sanitized between the handling of different raw meats and other foods.

  • Practicing good personal hygiene. Hands should be washed between chores; between handling raw meats and other products; after using the bathroom; and after touching dirty surfaces. Cuts or sores should be covered with bandages or plastic gloves; workers should not work while ill with nausea, diarrhea or vomiting.

  • Sanitizing and cleaning the kitchen. Sinks should be cleaned and sanitized; water must be set at temperatures for proper disinfecting; wiping cloths must be stored in sanitizer solution.

    Mayercheck provided the workers with background on the dangers of food-borne illnesses, and Ammon gave them a biology lesson on the types of bacteria that can infect food and the factors that make certain food more susceptible. Other hazards in the kitchen can include botulism, salmonella and E. coli.

    Bridget Rosewell, who works as an assistant at a doctor's office, is attending the certification course because she is looking into starting a catering business. She believes that the recent events in Beaver County have put a new emphasis on cleanliness in the food-service business.

    "I think it's definitely more important to the public now," she said. "There weren't too many surprises for me so far; I just needed to get some of the details straight."

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