Because leafy greens such as lettuce and spinach are often a source of contamination, Iowa State University researchers are targeting their safe handling in an effort to protect older adults, who are particularly susceptible to severe illness or death in foodborne illness outbreaks.
Dr. Susan W. Arendt, associate professor of hospitality management at Iowa State, said that, with a growing aging population in the U.S., it’s critical to focus on food safety in operations that serve older adults. Proper handling and preparation of leafy greens will help reduce the number of food poisoning cases, she added.
Arendt is leading a team of researchers observing how food service workers in restaurants, hospitals, and assisted living and long-term care facilities handle, prepare and serve leafy greens. Employees were also interviewed about the steps they follow in the kitchen. The research team took swabs of utensils and food contact surfaces at different times throughout the process to measure bacteria levels and contamination.
“We want to make sure leafy greens are served safely. Employees in these facilities are really the last line of defense in protecting against foodborne illnesses. Proper handling of leafy greens is especially important because they are mostly served raw,” Arendt said, adding, “We identified several potential problems that could lead to contamination.”
The purpose of the two-year study, funded by the USDA, is to educate food service employees on how to minimize the risk of cross-contamination. Based on their observations, researchers developed a series of posters to use at each facility. The team plans to return to each location for follow-up testing and observations to see if the educational campaign had an impact.
Researchers wanted a simple and effective way to deliver the information to employees who are working in a fast-paced environment. Instead of requiring classroom training or providing material for the employees to read, the posters hit on key messages and use several visuals to make a point. Arendt said the material will also be translated into Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.
“We know that food service directors do not have a lot of time to search for materials that are beneficial for their employees. With a minimal amount of text, we hope the posters will reach a broad audience, regardless of language or reading skills,” she said.
One poster features images of the germs found on your hands after touching a phone or your face, or if your hands are not properly washed. Arendt said those germs can easily be transferred to lettuce or spinach if the food is not handled properly, thereby increasing the chances for contamination.
Another poster illustrates how to handle and store pre-packaged or bagged vegetables — it does not recommend washing the produce after opening the package. It’s a precaution many people may take following the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to bagged spinach. However, Arendt said bagged produce is triple-washed and extra handling before serving is an added risk. The Food and Drug Administration also states that it’s not necessary to wash pre-washed produce.
Arendt told Food Safety News that all nine of the posters produced from the research team’s work will be available for free (including those translated into Spanish and Mandarin Chinese) at this website early in the fall.
Iowa State researchers Catherine Strohbehn, adjunct professor of hospitality management; Lakshman Rajagopal, associate professor of hospitality management, and Angela Shaw, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, are working with Arendt on the project. Kevin Sauer, associate professor at Kansas State University, is also part of the team.© Food Safety News