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New Hilton College Study Examines Fresh-Cut Produce Handling Processes 3/4/2014

Two-year Grant from the USDA May Lead to Industry-Wide Changes in Standard Operating Procedures

A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food Research Initiative will assist researchers at the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management to develop food safety processes, training materials and update standard operating procedures for the handling of fresh-cut produce. The grant funds a two-year effort.

“Our goal is to develop novel, behavior-based training materials that can be resources for the industry as a whole, from the processors, to the commercial kitchen and finally to the consumer,” says Jay Neal, assistant professor and food microbiologist with the college.Jay Neal

Collaborating with hospitality and food science researchers at The Ohio State University, Neal’s study will examine the preparation of fresh and fresh-cut produce from the initial processing to the final preparations in commercial kitchens. Sixteen grocery stores and restaurants in both Houston and Ohio will participate in the study. Employees will be surveyed on their current food safety knowledge and observed and evaluated on food handling practices. In addition, commercial shredders and slicers in kitchens will be swabbed with a fluorescent compound. Imaging data will allow researchers to observe how much of the compound has transferred to employees’ clothing and hands, and identify the high-touch and high-risk areas of the kitchen.

“We’ll also conduct a large national online consumer study consisting of nearly 8,000 surveys on their food-handling beliefs and expectations,” Neal said. “Their responses will be folded into training materials for the industry.

Eating at restaurants or picking up prepared food or meals at grocery stores is a growing trend. According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 70 billion meals are served at more than 960,000 commercial operations each year in the U.S. Neal says there is an upward trend of foodborne illness outbreaks associated with increased produce consumption and eating outside the home. He says improving food safety behavior-based training and procedures for fresh and fresh-cut produce will reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

The study will also develop online tools, such as webinars for use as training materials for industry professionals, and institute new standard operating procedures. An advisory board of local and national food safety experts and industry leaders will assist with the recruitment process and oversee the study results and training materials.

“Of course there are food-safety guidelines, but there are few training materials for restaurants and grocery stores that focus specifically on fresh-cut leafy greens,” Neal said. “Existing material may be a bit too generic. This is an opportunity for the industry to be proactive and to change its food-service culture.

Taylor Wiley