As the investigation continues into the cause of the 80 (and counting) Salmonella Hvittingfoss illnesses associated with Illinois Subway restaurants, the question arises of the possible role each Subway restaurant could have played in furthering the spread of the bacteria. 

With that in mind, a recent article by Nicole Norfleet caught my attention for its insight into the way that outbreaks such as Subway’s can be made exponentially worse by poor food safety practices at the restaurant.

Her report details a study by Ben Chapman, an assistant professor and food safety specialist who used video cameras in eight restaurant kitchens to monitor worker food safety habits.  He found that a typical kitchen worker cross-contaminates food with potentially dangerous pathogens about once per hour.  "Among the risky behaviors cited were workers using aprons and other garments to dry hands, as well as using the same utensils and surfaces to prepare both raw and cooked foods, according to a review by a North Carolina State University researcher."  The article continues:

Joan McGlockton, a food policy representative for the National Restaurant Association, said that while the study is disconcerting, the association doesn’t feel it is representative of the entire restaurant industry.

"We apply strong emphasis on employee training in areas of food safety to ensure that proper practices in hygiene, food handling and sanitation are in place in every food service outlet," she said in an e-mail.

Americans experience about 76 million foodborne illnesses a year. While most of these cases are mild and don’t have long-term symptoms, foodborne illnesses cause about 5,000 deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 1998 to 2004, the latest figures available, more than 50 percent of foodborne disease outbreaks reported to the CDC were associated with restaurants or delicatessens.

Cross-contamination happens when pathogens, such as salmonella and E. coli, are transferred from raw food or contaminated source to already prepared food. For example, when a cook uses the same knife to first cut raw chicken and then to slice a sandwich.

Chapman says the risky behaviors were most prevalent during busy periods. For example, some employees didn’t attempt to wash their hands during lunch and breakfast rushes. Multiple workers using the same tools caused many of the cross-contaminations, according to the review published in the June issue of the Journal of Food Protection.

There was also some good news: Chapman found that posting information about food safety in kitchens and break rooms that gives employees examples of the consequences of poor food handling significantly reduced risky behaviors.