BOSTON -- Retailers were offered a unique step-by-step demonstration of how to -- and how not to -- safely run a rotisserie chicken program in stores during the annual conference of the Northeast Fresh Food Alliance, formerly the New England Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association.
The demonstration was part of a seminar featuring experts who assured the retailers in attendance that they will face requirements for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point procedures in their stores by the year 2000, so they might as well start incorporating the HACCP method of continuous, monitored and documented self-inspection for their food-handling and cooking operations.
HACCP, the experts said, can prevent food-borne illness, thereby protecting store managers from liability and improving the store's bottom line.
"HACCP isn't complicated. The people who've made it complicated are the consultants," said Ed DeLuca, founder of DeLuca Inc. and moderator of the Deli/HACCP seminar. "It's a bottom-line tool. It helps you save money and it can help your employees keep you out of jail."
More than 9,000 deaths from food-borne illnesses occur in the United States annually, said U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief epidemiologist, Dr. Raza Haq. He explained that a Center for Disease Control study found "the problem is retail outlets, not processing plants."
Haq said probably the federal government will require HACCP systems in stores as soon as the year 2000. Other panelists urged retailers to learn the language of food safety, educate associates and create top-notch safety systems for employees to use.
"The CDC says there are 1.4 episodes of food-borne illness per person annually," said Dr. Richard W. Daniels of Audits International, Highland Park, Ill. "It's serious. And more than one-third of the chickens being cooked in the United States are being cooked at temperatures that are too low."
DeLuca offered participants a demonstration of proper methods for cooking and handling rotisserie chicken using HACCP principles.
"Supermarkets are quasi-manufacturing plants now," said DeLuca. "Since there are no guardian angels in the food business, we are not allowed our first mistake."
Proper methods include washing the probe thermometer regularly in sanitizing solution that's changed every two hours, and also washing the tube that holds the thermometer.
"There are usually no sinks near the rotisserie oven, so at least use an alcohol wipe and be sure to get all the debris off the stem," warned DeLuca.
Regular hot mitts made from non-washable fabric become "loaded with contaminants, all kinds of things you don't want on your chicken," he also explained. He recommended the use of washable hot mitts, adding that mitts should never touch the chicken when barbecued birds are removed from the skewer.
Another panelist, international consultant Dr. Gary Ades, reminded retailers to calibrate probe thermometers every morning by turning a nut on the bottom till the needle reaches zero. He also recommended keeping "a bunch" of thermometers on hand and numbering them.
"Before you use the thermometer, bring it down to 32 degrees Fahrenheit by suspending it in a cup of water with ice for a few minutes," said Ades.
The best control for a biological hazard is temperature, the panelists agreed. Chicken should be cooked to a minimum of 180 F, using a calibrated, washed and sanitized thermometer inserted between the breast and the thigh, not touching a bone.
He urged retailers to follow what he called the pathway to food safety: 1, Identify strengths and weaknesses for high-risk products; 2, Concentrate on the most achievable; 3, Achieve one success model at a time; 4, Interpret and reinforce strengths and successes.
Haq, whose responsibility for food-borne illnesses covers the United States and Puerto Rico, said, "The HACCP approach is to reduce micro-organisms. If it's followed step-by-step it will reduce or eliminate pathogens."
Haq also pointed out that virulent E. coli is widespread now, and if food handlers can control it, they can control most other pathogens. The federal government is working to establish a standard for pathogens using the ubiquitous salmonella as a baseline.
"Genetic E. coli is easy to test for," said Haq. "But people are still getting sick."
Daniels said he gained a new understanding of why people get sick from food-borne pathogens after his firm undertook a home-food safety survey, applying to selected home kitchens the 1997 Food Code used to evaluate restaurant kitchens.
"We divided the violations into critical and major," said Daniels. The team surveyed 106 households in 81 metropolitan areas, three in Canada, for the decidedly non-random survey. "Participants were educated, had an interest in food and volunteered willingly, thinking they'd pass. I was one of them," said Daniels.
Only one of the 106 households passed the test.
"What has the universal food-safety issue got to do with you? You are probably doing things wrong," said Daniels. "Employees don't come to work with the intent of doing a lousy job, so if they're doing a lousy job, look at the system you've provided them with."
Ades explained that HACCP, a system that requires strong sanitation procedures and temperature controls, must be "a ground-up program with a top-down commitment."
Most companies adopting HACCP methods like to gloss over the first and most important step, a real analysis of potential hazards, preferring to jump right into the critical control portion, said Ades. "I've been in plants whose HACCP plans have 62 critical control points," he said. "No one can be trained to do all those."
Many of the critical control points plugged into HACCP plans really constitute quality controls, not food-safety controls, or should really be standard operating procedures as part of a sanitation plan, said Ades.
Retailers should demand that their suppliers operate under HACCP principles, to remove some of the food-safety burden from the stores, Ades added. He recommends using the Keep It Simple, Stupid method to implement HACCP.
"Most of the places we work have the information they need for employees, but it's buried in 2,00 pages on how to run a restaurant," Ades remarked. "I'm a zealot about a daily checklist, religiously used. It's about as close to HACCP as you can realistically get."