Safety First Consumer palates continue to evolve in the quick-service restaurant industry as flavor trends cross over from sit-down restaurants to quick-serves. Today’s consumers desire interesting flavors and spices, fresh ingredients without preservatives, and clean labeling on grab-and-go selections. Modern food trends, however, may have the potential to create food safety issues. Quick-service restaurants must recognize possible problems and take the necessary precautions to keep foods tasty and customers safe.
Using cake mixes for new flavor sensations Mouth-watering milkshakes and fruit-flavored smoothies are practically staples on many quick-service menus. Customers savor the taste and consider smoothies, in particular, a healthy treat. Some quick-serves, however, have started adding dry cake or brownie mix to shakes and smoothies to enhance their flavor and consistency. Chocolate Devil’s Food smoothies, for example, are especially popular and include adding Devil’s Food cake mix to yogurt. Restaurants are also using cake mix to boost the flavor and consistency of frostings used to top cakes and cupcakes. Adding cake or brownie mix to milkshakes, smoothies and frostings increases the risk of foodborne illness such as E. coli as the mixes are not intended for raw consumption. These types of mixes must be adequately heated to kill the pathogens that may be found in untreated flour before customers can safely consume them raw. Quick-service restaurants have the option of heating the mixes in an oven at 350 degrees to kill pathogens, but the heat will alter the flavor and consistency. A better solution is to avoid adding cake and brownie mix to any product that will be served raw. Substituting cocoa and other flavorings is a safer choice.
Refreshing infused water Infused water is a fun and refreshing alternative for consumers seeking a tasty thirst quencher. And the selection of fruits, vegetables and herbs that may be added to filtered or sparkling water is almost endless—from strawberries and watermelon to cucumbers, rosemary and mint. All fruits, vegetables and herbs must be thoroughly washed before adding them to water to prevent foodborne illness such as listeria. Even melon rinds should be scrubbed to remove bacteria. Many restaurants infuse water at room temperature, which is an unsafe practice. Cut fruits and vegetables must be refrigerated below 41 degrees within two hours, with infused water always refrigerated—even after the fruit or vegetables are removed.
Greens from hydroponic gardens The beautiful hydroponic gardens growing on vertical walls inside sit-down restaurants are a delightful way to supply fresh herbs and greens on site. Now, the trend is gaining popularity among quick-service restaurants, with the gardens creating a form of living art. Hydroponic gardens generally elicit a variety of oohs and aahs from customers who appreciate the array of fresh herbs and leafy greens that restaurants have on hand for sandwiches, salads and entrees. But, the gardens are so unusual and attractive that customers want to touch and pet the plants. And, this handling usually occurs prior to restaurant personnel picking and serving the greens as part of someone’s dinner. Touching greens intended for consumption has the potential to expose diners to norovirus and other foodborne illness—especially if workers serve them without proper washing. In addition, someone could spray or place an unknown substance on the plants or in the soil or water and contaminate the root system. Hydroponic wall gardens should be placed in areas that are inaccessible to customers. A food safety specialist can suggest possible locations. Workers must also be trained to thoroughly wash all leafy greens and herbs before serving. The fact they are grown in water does not ensure they are clean or safe.
Consumer preference for local foods Customers are likely to snatch up salads featuring fresh and local produce or make a selection from an array of locally baked goods. Local foods are popular among QSR customers who perceive them as fresh, healthy, safe and better for the environment. For safety’s sake, quick-service restaurants must have a supplier approval program in place for all local producers and processors. An approved supplier program requires every quick-serve supplier to implement accepted food safety practices during each step of the growing, production, processing and distribution system. The program also facilitates traceability in the event an investigator must track a food to its source during a foodborne illness event.
Summary Consumers will continue to exhibit strong preferences for new flavors and certain types of ingredients. Quick-service restaurants have the opportunity to meet customer demand for new taste sensations while providing foods that are safe. Gina Nicholson Kramer RS, REHS is managing partner for Savor Safe Food, www.savorsafefood.com.