One of the cold, hard truths of the foodservice industry is that 45 percent of employees don’t wash their hands despite signs in restrooms and around the workplace urging them to do so. An even more surprising—and potentially more harmful—statistic is that 99.9 percent of foodservice patrons don’t soap up either, increasing the possibility of spreading germs throughout the restaurants they frequent.

According to a FDA report, 21.9 percent of quick-service restaurants were cited for contaminated equipment and 31.2 percent for poor personal hygiene in 2004, and the Centers For Disease Control estimates an average of 40 million cases of food poisoning per year in the United States. All that leads to a whole lot of lawsuits for the industry.

But, according to the presenters of Technology Tools to Improve Food Safety, a panel discussion at the 2005 North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers, innovation in antimicrobials has the potential to help make inroads in terms of eliminating this problem.

Antimicrobials, which are used to destroy and inhibit the growth of harmful microorganisms, can be used to prevent cross contamination, propagation, and biofouling in a foodservice environment.

“It’s an innovative application to address a known consumer issue,” says Michael Orlando, business unit manager for the Saniguard division of Component Hardware Group, Inc. and a member of the panel.

A number of different antimicrobials are available to suit various foodservice needs, but the panelists agreed that the future of antimicrobials lies in products that have them built right in, such as cutting boards, floor and wall sealants, and tile grout.

Antimicrobial producers have the ability to incorporate their product into a number of different materials, but it’s up to foodservice operators to demand that kitchen equipment manufacturers start integrating the technology into their products, says Louise O’Sullivan, president of PrimeAdvantage and panel moderator.

“All of this is available, but none of it will be put into action until operators demand it of manufacturers,” she says.

Even so, the panelists stress, antimicrobials are not a be-all, end-all solution when it comes to food safety.

“This is an adjunct to your normal cleaning routines,” says panelist and senior account manager for Microban Products Company Michael Crenshaw, referring to antimicrobials. “It is not to take the place of regular routine cleaning practices.”

The use of antimicrobials, however, can be a mitigating factor if and when operators are taken to court if a customer gets sick from their restaurants.

“It demonstrates diligence,” says Tom Johnson, another panelist who is also the president and CEO of Johnson Diversified Products, Inc. “It’s one more thing you can do on top of best cleaning practices, so when you do go to court…and they find that yes, indeed these people really did get sick from the food you produced, it will help keep the damage down.”