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Letter From The Editor: Meat Slicers

When you go into a food or beverage establishment that is successful and well run, one of the things you will notice is that everything has a place and everything is in its place.

Cleaning and sanitizing objects and surfaces is done without almost a conscious thought about what is being done as it is being done.   Staff can even keep up a chatty conservation with customers as they do their appointed duties.

When you add an open kitchen to that sort of establishment, giving customers the option of sitting up there watching the chefs and all that goes on, it gives those of us who might be a little paranoid about food safety that warm and fuzzy feeling.

There are no hard and fast rules, but I have to believe that if someone did statistical research open kitchens would be better for food safety than those operating behind closed doors.

What your own senses tell you about a restaurant are really your first line of defense.  For example, we walk immediately out of restaurants that do not bus dirty tables or have restrooms that are so bad you seriously think about calling in a hazardous materials team.

If those conditions are acceptable to the restaurant management “out front,” just imagine what’s going on behind the scenes.

That does not mean that if something is done in front of you, it’s safe.   For example, a bartender may cut up those lemons and limes in front of everybody, but that does not mean you want one off the pile an hour or two later.

When you go into your favorite deli, you will often watch the server use one of those big electric slicers to whiz off a few slices of ham or pastrami or whatever.  On the surface it looks like a shiny clean machine doing quick cuts.

The Rhode Island Department of Health, however, has lately been looking below the surface on those deli machines, finding flies in the middle of winter and dripping in clumps.   

Deli slicers are stainless steel that from the outside looks all shiny and clean.  But when broken down, under handles and plastic blade-covers are all sorts of places for clumps and other debris to collect.

Most are suppose to be broken down and cleaned after every four hours of use, but that isn’t happening.  Rhode Island is looking at whether deli cutters might be responsible for as much listeria as ready-to-eat meat.

Rhode Island’s findings about deli slicers really should not be a surprise to anyone who followed Canada’s 2008 Listeria outbreak that was linked to ready-to-eat meats from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto.  The report of the independent inquiry into the outbreak commented on the time it takes to clean the meat slicing machines that were implicated in the outbreak that killed 22 mostly elderly Canadians.

“While there was daily sanitation of all surfaces coming into contact with food, a complete cleaning of the entire plant only took place on the weekends and not every piece of equipment was fully dismantled,” the report said. “For example, we heard that to take the meat slicing machines completely apart, thoroughly sanitize and then reassemble would have required shutting down the plant for three days. We also heard that it could take considerably less time.”

So next time you are at your favorite deli, you might want to ask about the last time the meat slicers were broken down and really cleaned.  Just tell them you are paranoid about food safety.

© Food Safety News