By M.L. Dehm HBJ Freelance Writer
EVERETT — Beginning May 1, Washington state food service regulations will be updated to include provisions from the federal government’s model food code.
“Our food supply is very safe,” said Snohomish Health District food program manager Rick Zahalka. “But it could be better and that’s why we continue to work on it.”
Food science has advanced considerably over the 24 years that Zahalka has been with the Snohomish Health District. He remembers well one defining moment in the state’s food safety program: the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak of 1993 that sickened hundreds of people and killed three children locally.
“At the time, we were all aware that the E. coli bacteria was a pathogen that was found in ground beef and we were working to educate and enforce the cooking of hamburger patties to at least 155 degrees,” Zahalka said.
Unfortunately, most members of the public were then unaware of how deadly an undercooked hamburger could be. There was a lot of consumer pressure on restaurants to serve burgers cooked to order rather than at a safe temperature.
The Jack in the Box episode educated the public in a way that has lasted to the present day. Most people are now familiar with the dangers of E. coli and restaurant compliance improved almost immediately after the tragedy, Zahalka said.
But there are other threats less well known that could affect the public if food services did not keep a watchful eye on their operations. This is why cold-holding temperature for potentially hazardous foods will remain at the current 41 degrees.
A few years ago, the cold-holding temperature was 45 degrees but it was changed when it was discovered the bacterial pathogen listeria was not being controlled at that temperature.
However, the danger zone temperature for the hot-holding of potentially hazardous foods has been reduced from 140 degrees down to a less conservative 135 degrees for a violation.
“The science behind that is that there are no pathogenic bacteria that will grow above 126 degrees. They’ll survive but they won’t grow,” Zahalka said.
The new rule changes will add cut leafy greens and cut tomatoes to the list of potentially hazardous foods. This is because of their processing, Zahalka said. When the vegetables are cut, the cells along the cut line provide nutrients to feed any bacteria that is present. These products will now need to be kept at an appropriate holding temperature to prevent bacterial growth.
Additionally, produce must now be washed under running water and should not be touched with bare hands. This rule is to control the spread of fecal oral viruses such as norovirus. If produce is washed in a sink or basin with bare hands that have not been properly washed after using the toilet, the virus can become dispersed throughout the basin of water and all of the produce will become contaminated.
The new rules also offer further definitions for egg pooling. This disallowed practice used to involve mixing up large batches of raw eggs for consumption in a dish cooked to a temperature of less than 155 degrees. Egg pooling could potentially allow one salmonella-tainted egg to contaminate an entire batch.
“Raw shell eggs used to be what they considered non-potentially hazardous,” Zahalka said. When he began at the Snohomish Health District, salmonella hadn’t been found in eggs in Washington state and there was no refrigeration requirement.
This changed significantly after Washington’s salmonella outbreak of 2003. The modernization of egg laying flocks allowed salmonella bacteria to be introduced into the laying hens themselves. The bacteria is then internally passed on to the egg before the shell forms. In other words, salmonella is present inside the egg before it’s even laid.
“The only way to control the growth of the bacteria is to keep the egg cold,” Zahalka said.
Just as changes in food production techniques can affect food safety, so can cooking methods. The new craze for “sous vide,” a preparation technique that cooks food in airtight plastic bags in low-temperature water baths, also comes with potential dangers such as botulism and listeria if not monitored carefully.
Cooking techniques such as grill marking and non-continuous cooking methods have their own specific requirements in order to ensure public safety. All are designed to keep the public safe so they won’t get ill if they eat out.
“They shouldn’t have to worry about it,” Zahalka said.
The new rule changes go into effect on May 1. A complete list of changes is at the Snohomish Health District website, www.snohd.org, along with links to restaurant inspection reports and other business and consumer information.