Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

How Safe Are Self-Serve Unpackaged Foods?

Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

How Safe Are Self-Serve Unpackaged Foods?

Article excerpt

"It doesn't look sanitary, but if there was really a problem, the health department wouldn't allow it, right?"

- anonymous customer to her friend


At many supermarket bakeries, a consumer can have a clerk package a dozen donuts. With luck, there's a hand sink nearby, the sink is used regularly, and employees are trained to handle food safely. The donuts are protected from customer contamination, at least until they are given to the shopper.

Instead of a clerk, however, customers may find a row of self-serve bakery cases. In this case, customers must select and package their donuts themselves. The procedure may expose the food to unsanitary handling or to droplets (e.g., from sneezing or coughing).

Any type of self-serve operation raises health concerns. Self-service is less sanitary than employee service because it exposes the food to an additional source of contamination: customers. Studies of behavior at salad bars, buffets, and bulk-food-bin displays have shown that many consumers engage in unsanitary behaviors such as touching the foods or the serving ends of utensils (1,2).

Consider a self-serve donut case. The customer opens a door (an outward-opening door or a door with a lift-up hinged lid) and, using tongs or wax paper, places the donuts in a box or bag. While the door is open, the donuts are directly exposed to droplets. Also, the serving tongs may be dirty and vulnerable to droplets or other mishandling. The tongs may not have been washed, or they may have been washed in an unacceptable location. The tongs or wax paper may be missing altogether, and the customer may have to use bare hands - hands that may or may not be clean. The area around the case may not be easy to clean, and poor sanitation could allow vermin to establish themselves nearby, living off crumbs and food debris. The design of the case may force the customer to prop the door open with an arm or shoulder, awkwardly trying to avoid brushing against the food with hands, forearms, or clothing. Less circumspect shoppers may touch several donuts before selecting the ones they think look most appealing. Perhaps there are no doors - perhaps dust, dirt, or insects land on the donuts throughout the day.

Despite sanitation shortcomings, self-service is a popular way of selling a variety of unpackaged, ready-to-eat food items. Many foods are dispensed in this manner: entree dishes, salads, soups, donuts, rolls, cookies, candies, spices, pies, cakes, jerkies, candy, hot dogs, popcorn, pizza, burritos, sodas, coffees, ice, ice cream, yogurt, dried fruits, condiments, and sushi. The continuous evolution of the food service industry suggests that any food might be sold unpackaged in some type of self-serve display.

A critical aspect of self-service is the equipment and utensils with which customers portion, dispense, and package food products into cups, bags, plates, boxes, and other containers. Common types of self-serve equipment include salad bars, buffet lines, beverage machines, soft-serve ice cream machines, coffee pots, bakery display cases, hot dog warmers, popcorn machines, pretzel cases, soup kettles, crockpots, and bulk-food bins. Utensils include multi-use or disposable tongs, scoops, cups, plates, straws, coffee stirrers, and silverware.

As illustrated by the donut case example, self-serve equipment may not provide adequate protection for the food or utensils. Sanitation may be inadequate even when the food is considered to be "packaged." At many soda dispensers, a cup is pushed against a lever. If self-serve filling is allowed, the lip of the cup may touch an unsanitary lever. Lever-action beverage machines are best suited for behind-the-counter operation by employees (one-time fill only) and are not recommended for self-serve areas. Push-button dispensers are a better choice. The design prevents cross-contamination from dirty cups to clean ones.

The challenge for the environmental health professional is to ensure that self-serve, ready-to-eat foods that are not individually prepackaged are dispensed in a manner that is as safe and sanitary as possible under all foreseeable operating conditions. …

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