BALTIMORE -- The temperature component of the food-safety formula has been well documented as one of the key defenses in protecting fresh foods from contamination by pathogens. The practice calls for maintaining food outside of the so-called red zone, in which bacteria can multiply -- generally between 41 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
While advances in technology have made the process easier to monitor and control, current regulations are too restrictive and allowances must be made for flexibility dependent on both time and temperature, according to panelists at the recent Food Safety Conference here, sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute, Washington.
To that end, many are calling on the Food and Drug Administration to acknowledge that there is flexibility in acceptable temperature, and food safety must be addressed as an issue of both time and temperature, not temperature alone.
According to Steve Grover, vice president of health and regulatory affairs for the National Restaurant Association, Washington, the current hot-holding standard of 140 degrees can be lowered to 130 degrees with little impact on the safety of the product. However, the higher temperature can sometimes affect quality. He explained there is a five-degree swing which must be taken into consideration, and while 140 degrees is ideal, anything higher is often too hot, and food quality can be irrevocably diminished at such levels. Findings presented by Timothy Weigner, FMI's director of food-safety programs, supported the NRA's conclusion that food remains safe at the 130-degree temperature.
"[While] time and temperature violations are usually a factor in outbreaks [of foodborne illness], a series of studies that tested growth factors for spore formers and toxin producers showed that the food was still safe at 130 degrees," he said.
Fred Reimers, manager of food safety for San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Grocery Company, agreed, saying that the standards set by the Food Code are very restrictive and need to allow for greater flexibility in both hot holding and refrigeration.
"Now [we] have the ability to set time and temperature based on science," he said. "[So] why can't we use different time/temperature relationships based on current research?"
Jeanette Lyons, who represented the FDA, stressed the Food Code is intended merely as a guide for state-regulating agencies to use when establishing what is important and required with regard to food temperature.
"The purpose of the Food Code is to assist in the minimization of foodborne illness and to serve as a model for state-level agencies," she said. "The agency does acknowledge there are many variances of time and temperature that allow for safe handling of food. The difficulty has been the state agency knowing if the entire system is working."
Besides improper holding temperatures, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, also lists poor personal hygiene, inadequate cooking, cross-contamination and unsafe sources as top causes of foodborne illness. While supermarkets and restaurants cannot feasibly control all of these contributors, the panelists acknowledged that all these factors impact the supermarket, and the restaurant as well, because they represent the point of sale -- and are the first places consumers think of in the event of an outbreak.
Retailers and food-service operators are quickly moving to redefine the relationship between themselves and their suppliers, so that each link in the distribution chain equally shoulders the responsibility for food safety and quality.
"Farm-to-table partnerships are very important," said Grover. "Retailers and restaurants get their food at the back door and they must know everyone has cared for time and temperature [before that]."
Panel members agreed that technology can be a major resource when developing food-safety programs. Data collection, storage, retrieval and analysis can be handled in a more rapid and simple manner; tests of multiple units can be monitored from a central location; and automatic testing reduces the margin for error.
In addition, computer systems like the one manufactured by Micro Thermo Technologies, Kennesaw, Ga., which is in use at H-E-B Central Market locations, can be easily reprogrammed to accommodate changes in menu and operations.
"At H-E-B, we use temperature not only for freshness, but to send a message to customers," said Reimers.