New Food Code: A Menu of Modern Safety Standards

Article excerpt

The carefully cleaned vegetables in the grocery salad bar, the fully-cooked hamburgers at the neighborhood fast-food restaurant, the fresh cold milk on the lunch tray at the nursing home these foods are all prepared by people who pay attention to details. If they were not so careful, it's possible they could unknowingly cause someone to get sick from any one of the many illnesses that could be spread through food. And in this day of emerging dangerous strains of bacteria, attention to detail is especially important.

Most of the heightened awareness and the food safety routines required of people who prepare and serve food directly to consumers originate with the Food and Drug Administration's Food Code. The Food Code, revised in 1993 to combine three documents into one, recommends new procedures for food establishment workers based on the latest scientific thinking on how to prevent food-borne disease.

Included are new recommendations for cooking times and temperatures to kill dangerous bacteria that could be present in food, and for holding times and temperatures to slow or prevent growth. And, for the first time, the Code will give instructions for the proper use of food additives. Also included are basics, such as cleaning hands, employee health, cleaning food preparation and serving areas, and managers' responsibilities.

The Food Code is neither federal law nor regulation. Rather, it is offered as model legislation to more than 85 state and territorial agencies and 3,000 local regulatory departments that license and inspect the more than 1 million establishments in the United States offering food directly to consumers.

State and local jurisdictions use the code to develop or update their own food rules. Officials with experience using older editions of food codes helped with the 1993 revision. The 1993 Food Code is the 12th edition. The first was published in 1934.

"The code gives the public health community the information it needs to speak with one voice about what's important for food safety and what it expects of food establishment operators," says Art Banks of FDA's retail food protection branch and chief architect of the document.

Federal agencies that direct their own food services, such as the U.S. Interior Department's Park Service and the Department of Defense, apply Food Code guidelines directly to their operations. The Navajo Nation has also adopted earlier editions of the Food Code for use in their food establishments.

Code Changes

"The Food Code has changed a great deal over the years," says Banks, "because food operations at the retail level have changed significantly." Previously, the code was three separate documents--one each for food service (last published in 1976), food vending (1978), and food stores (1982). The 1993 edition combines the three into one document and will be updated every two years. Banks calls the new combined edition a "full tool box" that covers all categories food operations are likely to encounter.

Combining the codes was necessary, he says, because "the lines have blurred" that distinguish the types of services offered by retail food operations. For example, some restaurants now sell featured ingredients from their own entrees, such as barbecue sauces and bakery items, as groceries. Grocery stores have self-service salad bars and ready-to-eat entrees in their delicatessens. Although enthusiasm for self-serve bulk foods is fading somewhat, many stores still offer them. Convenience stores often sell store-prepared fast food items such as hot dogs, pizzas, and breakfast entrees. And many food store and food service operations have rending machines.

In addition, restaurants and grocers are now using new ingredients and preparing foods in ways that were not envisioned when previous codes were written. "Today, consumers' wants and needs go beyond the traditional," Banks says. "Cooks don't always use the common spices you find in most kitchens, and their equipment is much more sophisticated. …