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  • Writer's pictureRusty Bowers

The Science & Art of Food Safety

Early last year I got to visit a friend of mine who had taken a job as an Executive Chef just outside of Atlanta. As my car pulled up in front of the massive, farm-style restaurant I knew I was in for a treat. Beaming, the chef greeted me at the large, hand crafted oak door, eagerly waving me inside. He led me through the kitchen, past the dish pit, and into the storage room. Tucked away in the back corner, between cases of beer and paper towels was a small metal refrigerator. Opening the door with glee, I peeked inside to see the familiar white mold dusting various types of curing meat, hanging from metal hooks with butcher’s twine, laced between wires connected to fans and thermometers, looking like some kind of science fiction lab experiment. Chefs and food crafters are creative professionals by nature, and this chef wanted to make charcuterie to serve in his restaurant. He, needing an approved Food Safety Program, and me, being well-versed in such as a hand crafted meat producer, developed a mutually beneficial relationship in which I could apply my knowledge and love of food science to their recipes and methods to develop their FDA approved Food Safety Program.

What exactly is a Food Safety Program?

Food Safety Programs are made up of three central parts: Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOP), Quality Systems Manual (QSM), and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) Plan. This all sounds complicated and technical, but simple when you look at each part’s basic function. The SSOP and QSM are detailed explanations of how things are done on site, including cleaning practices, how things are stored, etc. – think of it as the rules the staff follow to keep things running safely. The HACCP Plan list the steps of how things are created and map out possible biological, physical, and chemical hazards as Critical Control Points (CCPs) and addresses how to mitigate or prevent them to ensure the food we create is safe for public consumption – think of it as the sheet music that accompanies a melodic aria. I like to think of a Food Safety Program as the perfect intersection of science and art; using scientific data to enable craftsmanship. It is the safety net that allows innovation in the art of food.

More than just Big Business

Food Safety Programs have historically applied only to large, commercial food producers, who are required to document and justify their production methods. However, it is now more common for FDA health inspectors to insist on in-depth Food Safety Programs to defend the food created by restaurant chefs and smaller, craft food producers. More chefs are branching out to embrace techniques, such as dry curing, fermenting, sous vide, and pickling to add their personal creativity to restaurant menus. We celebrate this creativity and the associated effort as forms of culinary art and master technique. We crave experiences that showcase the unique, artistic side of a food crafter and his/her clever take on classic dishes and cooking methods. However captivating, it is most important to remember that these works of art will be consumed by the public and require appropriate safety precautions. Without proper safety methods in place, a meal can go from a beautiful masterpiece to a disastrous food outbreak. It is humbling to appreciate the trust that consumers place in chefs, and it is our professional duty to ensure that trust is maintained.

Free to Explore Ideas

Establishing a proper Food Safety Program can seem daunting and tedious, but if I may offer an alternative – look at it as the pathway to freedom to explore your creativity, safely and legally. Pickles, for example, have CCPs that define required pH and temperature measurements. Those being the only requirements, one has the ability to alter and experiment with ingredients, such as salt, sugar, and spices, what is being pickled, and more. Find the fun in understanding the science behind the recipe and make it a learning experience as you enhance your craft.

Keeping it Simple

HACCP Plans, as daunting as they may seem, do not need to be a complex spider web that create tedious or unnecessary tasks. For example, I once did consulting for a juice company that originally contained 15 CCPs for their cold pressed juice HACCP, including temperature monitoring for every step of the process, a freezing kill step for possible bacteria, and even a CCP for proper trash disposal. Through better application of food science principles, we were able to consolidate the plan to include only one CCP, a record of proper log reduction, one of the most common CCPs. Reducing the CCPs from 15 to one, effectively condensed the recipe execution time from three work shifts to one, saving the small company hundreds of labor dollars each time the juices were prepared. Given the growing need for in-depth Food Safety Programs for restaurants and food producers, having a solid grasp of food safety science and CCPs in order to develop efficient procedures and simple, but effective Food Safety Programs, is essential to maximizing time, money, and creative expenditures.

Keeping Food Safe

Unlike other artistic endeavors, food art relies on public confidence that our products are safe for consumption. A Food Safety Program is a necessary consideration in the expression of one’s culinary creativity. I encourage chefs and to continue experimenting with meat processing and developing personal styles, realizing that HACCP Plans should be seen as an important building block in this evolution, not something intended to prevent growth; they are an essential and artistic documentation, giving permission to conduct controlled risk-taking and recipe development.

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