The Basics of Cold Holding and Self-Service by Mark Barnes

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 48 million instances of foodborne illness each year in the U.S.
The CDC has also identified the five most significant causal factors:
1. Purchasing food from unsafe sources
2. Failing to cook food adequately
3. Holding food (hot or cold) at improper temperatures
4. Using contaminated equipment
5. Practicing poor personal hygiene
Today let’s focus on cold holding. And because our cold held food is often in a self-service area (salad bars, buffets, etc.), let’s explore the best practices in those areas. The first thing to acknowledge when managing a self-service area, is that as the name suggests, our customers have access to these areas. Generally speaking, our customers are not professional food handlers, nor are they typically trained in food safety. Point being - when we are holding food for temperature control, time-temperature abuse is not our only concern. We also need to worry about personal hygiene, cross-contamination, and allergen cross-contact - not to mention the importance of food quality and appearance.
Here are some basics:
Label Everything
From self-service flatware to every single food item, label, label, label! You do not want customers trying to identify food themselves by grabbing tastes with their fingers. In fact, why not post a sign letting customers know they can ask staff members to provide a sample?
Have Enough Serving Utensils
Just like everywhere else in our operation, if a food item requires a utensil it requires its own dedicated utensil - we should not be sharing between items. In addition, have backup utensils ready. I have no idea where they go, but serving spoons and tongs always seem to disappear and we don’t want customers repurposing utensils. This creates a fear of allergen cross-contact and cross-contamination.
Prevent Customers from Reusing Plates and Flatware
Once used, those items contain saliva - enough said?
Check Temperatures Every Two Hours
As the Food Code tells us, time-temperature control for safety foods (TCS) must be discarded after spending four hours in the Temperature Danger Zone (TDZ, 41°F - 135°F). So, if we are cold holding food on our salad bar, then at a minimum, we are required to check the temperatures every four hours. The problem with checking every four hours is that when an item is at an unsafe temperature, it must be discarded. If we check every two hours, that would leave us enough time to take corrective action (i.e. cool the food down to 41°F or below).
Actively Manage Area
A busy self-service area will demand a lot of attention. From replenishing and refreshing food, replacing missing utensils, and checking temperatures, to cleaning the area and keeping an eye on the customers - managing the area is a full-time job. All things considered, these areas are so potentially dangerous from a food safety standpoint. We have to make sure we are allocating the necessary resources to minimize the risks.
 This blog is not intended to be a substitute for the user's judgement and common sense. Any errors are unintentional.

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