Developing a Practical Audit Tool for
Employee Food-Handling Practices
The purpose of this study was to develop and test an audit
tool for assessing employee food-handling practices in school foodservice. The
tool was developed using three resources: sample forms and standards used by sanitarians;
the California Food Code, which is based on the Food and Drug Administration's
1999 Food Code, and the National Restaurant Association's Educational Foundation's
ServSafe® Coursebook. The audit tool's areas of focus were time/temperature
abuse, employee hygiene, and cross-contamination.
The tool was tested by conducting audits of employee food-handling
practices in 15 middle school kitchens in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior
to conducting the audits, the researcher trained two observers on appropriate
food-handling practices and the protocol for conducting the audits. The researcher
and two trained observers each audited five school kitchens.
The audits, conducted in the morning during both preparation
and service, lasted for approximately two hours. They indicate that this tool
was sensitive to the identification of poor food-handling practices in the facilities
during the audit periods, and helped determine that school foodservice employees
do not always follow safe food-handling practices. These findings suggest that
using an audit tool for routine monitoring may be helpful as part of a continuous
self-monitoring program for food safety. This audit tool could be adapted and
used by school foodservice directors to conduct self-assessments of employee
food-handling practices in their operations.
More than 27 million school meals are served daily to American
children (U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2001). School foodservice professionals
are responsible for the safety of the foods served to children (American School
Food Service Association [ASFSA], 1999).
School foodservice employees must follow correct food safety procedures to ensure
the safety of the foods they serve (Roefs, 2000). The General Accounting Office
(GAO) reported only eight and nine incidents of foodborne illness attributed
to school lunch meals in 1997 and 1998, respectively (GAO, 2000). While this
is an excellent record of food safety, even one foodborne illness outbreak could
be devastating to children and to a school district. For example, a jury awarded
a $4.75 million judgment against a school district for an E.coli poisoning that
occurred in an elementary school (Cary, 2001). Monitoring food-handling practices
is necessary to ensure food safety and to protect customers' health.
The conditions and practices that impact food safety were investigated
in one centralized school foodservice production system (Brown, McKinley, Aryan
& Hotzler, 1982). The researchers found that while handwashing facilities
were accessible, poor handwashing techniques were observed. In addition, foods
were handled directly and employees were eating and drinking while working in
the food preparation area. Time-temperature abuses also were observed. Entrees
were held for long periods at inadequate holding temperatures.
In another study, sanitation practices in four school production
kitchens were evaluated (Gilmore, Brown, & Dana, 1998). Researchers found
employees exhibited frequent failure to wash hands and use hair restraints.
Contaminated gloves were changed in only half of the researchers' observations.
Sanitation of surfaces, small equipment, utensils, and thermometers was inconsistent
and sometimes nonexistent.
Raccach, Morrison, and Farrier (1985) investigated public health
hazards in a school foodservice operation using a central kitchen. These researchers
found that refrigerated and frozen foods were stored and rotated appropriately.
They also observed foods to be correctly covered. However, employees were observed
using bare hands during food preparation; in fact, glove use was observed only
twice, and hair restraints were not used at all. In addition, inadequate warewashing
and sanitizing was apparent, as was the lack of sneeze-guard protectors.
Three Midwestern elementary schools were studied before and after
conversion of their food production system from a centralized to a cook/chill
system (Kim & Shanklin, 1999). Time and temperature histories were monitored
for spaghetti with meat sauce for three days for both production systems. They
found that food items were reheated and held in a steamtable or hot cart for
several hours before service due to time and equipment constraints. This inadequate
holding was observed to occur both before and after conversion to the new cook/chill
Safe food-handling practices need the attention of school foodservice
directors. In this study, we developed a practical audit tool to assess employee
food-handling practices in school foodservice, and tested the audit tool in
15 schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. This audit tool was developed to assist
school foodservice directors in assessing food-handling practices in their districts.
Results of such an audit may be used to determine training needs of employees
and needs for standard operating procedures. The audit tool also could be used
in the training process.
Development of the Food Safety Audit Form
An audit tool (Figure 1)
was developed based on the following resources: the Santa Clara County, Department
of Environmental Health Food Program Official Inspection Report; the California
Uniform Retail Food Facilities Law (California's food code that is based on the
1999 Food Code) (CURFFL, 2000); the National Restaurant Association Educational
Foundation's ServSafe® Coursebook (1999); and other literature (Bryan,
1982; Neumann, 1998; Reed, 1993).
The food safety areas or practices chosen for evaluation on the
audit form related to the following issues:
- temperature monitoring;
- food storage;
- hot and cold food preparation and service;
- cleaning and sanitation; and
- personal hygiene.
Time and temperature, cross-contamination, and employee hygiene
and handwashing are considered the most frequently observed areas of abuse (Bryan,
1982; Neumann, 1998; Reed, 1993).
The checklist format used for the audit tool enabled three response
- "Yes" indicated that the observed procedure
was performed correctly 100% of the time by all employees during the audit;
- "No" indicated that the observed procedure
was performed incorrectly or inconsistently during the audit; and
- "Not Applied" indicated that either the procedure
was not relevant or it was not observed during the audit.
The audit tool for observing employee food-handling practices
was evaluated for content validity by six school foodservice directors whose
districts were not included in the audits.
Two observers were trained by the researchers to conduct
audits. The observers who were selected had educational backgrounds in nutrition
or foodservice management. The training consisted of a two-hour workshop to
explain the processes for conducting audits. The researchers explained each
item on the audit tool and the appropriate techniques or standard for food handling
based upon CURFFL requirements. The workshop included instructions on correct
completion of the audit tool. The response terms were defined, and hypothetical
situations describing food-handling practices were used to teach observers how
to make determinations of adherence to standards. Observers were asked to make
determinations for scoring "Yes," "No," or "Not Applied."
After training, pilot-testing in two randomly selected school
foodservice operations was conducted to verify inter-rater reliability. Operations
used for pilot-testing were excluded from the sample, from which the final 15
test kitchens were chosen. Observations amongst the researcher and two observers
were consistent for 90% of the responses. Discrepancies were discussed and total
consensus was reached on the process for completing audits.
In November 2000, 7 school foodservice directors
were randomly selected from a total of 21 potential study participants. An invitation
letter explained the purpose of the study and asked directors to allow audits
of the food-handling practices in schools in their districts. One week after
the initial mailing either a thank-you or another invitation letter was mailed
to respondents and non-respondents, respectively. Five school foodservice directors
agreed to participate in the audits and supplied the researchers with a list
of onsite kitchens in their districts. Three onsite kitchens from each school
district were randomly selected as sites for conducting the audits, comprising
a convenience sample of 15 school kitchens.
Conducting the Audits
Audits of employee food-handling practices were
conducted during the lunch meal period. They involved approximately two hours
of observation during both preparation and service of meals. Most took place
between the hours of 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Days for conducting the audits were
chosen at random. The researcher and two trained observers each audited five
school kitchens one time during January. The audits were conducted at least
one week after the return to school following the holiday break. With agreement
by the participating school foodservice directors, all three observers told
the onsite kitchen managers that they were foodservice students interested in
learning more about school foodservice. This was an attempt to decrease the
likelihood of employees changing their food-handling practices due to the observers'
In addition to completing the audits, researchers gathered demographic
data from the school foodservice managers. Managers were asked how long they
had spent in their current position, what was their experience in school foodservice,
and what was the average number of daily lunches served in their program. After
asking the demographic questions, observers kept a low profile during the audits
to allow typical production and service procedures to occur.
The food-handling practices in the school kitchens were observed
and noted on the audit tool. To ensure confidentiality, all forms were coded
with a two-digit site code. Participating school foodservice directors were
assured of complete confidentiality.
Audit data were analyzed using frequencies of responses
to describe the food-handling practices of the school foodservice employees.
Means were calculated to describe demographic characteristics of the sample.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Demographics of the Sample
Audits of employee food-handling practices were conducted
at 15 onsite middle school kitchens in order to test the use of the audit tool.
The mean length of time that managers were employed in their current position
was 9 years, and in school foodservice overall it was 16 years. The mean number
of lunch meals served daily was 430, with a range from 80 to 1,800. All managers
used a conventional system, and none served the same menu item during an audit.
In each of the operations, the managers had received formal food safety training
and their certificates were displayed.
Results of the Audit Process
The audit tool was considered easy to complete and
resulted in the identification of some areas of noncompliance with safe food-handling
procedures in the schools participating in this study. Further, the audit tool
appears to provide consistency of results among multiple observers, since it
indicated patterns of food safety abuses among school foodservice kitchens during
the food safety audits. The audit results are presented in Table
The poor food-handling practice most frequently observed was
related to time and temperature. In 10 kitchens, employees were not observed
taking internal temperatures of hot food at any time during pre-preparation.
Cold food temperatures were never taken during the observations in all 15 audits.
The second most frequent abuse observed was the lack of thermometers available
for taking food temperatures. A probe-type thermometer is required by CURFFL
for taking food temperatures and was present in only 8 of the 15 kitchens. Just
6 of the 15 kitchens kept temperature logs of food items. The third most frequently
observed food-handling problem was failure to transfer foods to cold storage
during preparation steps. Cold and frozen foods were observed outside of cold
storage for the duration of the audit in 8 of the 15 kitchens. Food thawing
at room temperature also was observed.
During preparation and service, the most frequently observed
problem was the handling of food with bare hands. When gloves were used, they
were not changed between tasks in 5 of the 15 schools observed. The second most
common problem was the lack of sneeze guards on the serving lines. Nine of the
15 kitchens did not have sneeze guards.
Several poor food-handling practices were identified related
to storage. In 9 of the 15 kitchens, refrigerated food items were covered to
protect them from overhead contamination. However, the majority of refrigerated
food items frequently were not labeled or dated. In 6 of the 15 kitchens, large
boxes were not stored 6 inches off the floor in dry storage areas. Frequently,
observers noted that raw meats, seafood, and poultry were not stored below other
Poor practices related to employee hygiene included inadequate
handwashing, lack of hair restraints, and eating and drinking in food preparation
areas. Inadequate handwashing was a problem frequently observed. Employee handwashing
was not observed in 2 of the 15 school kitchens. In 13 of the 15 kitchens where
employees were observed washing their hands, proper handwashing was a concern.
In these instances, handwashing consisted of rinsing hands without soaping,
inadequate scrubbing, and washing of hands in the food preparation sinks. Observers
also reported a failure by employees to wear hair restraints. In 13 of the 15
kitchens, one or more employees were not wearing hair restraints. A third food
safety abuse frequently observed was employees eating and drinking in food preparation
areas. In almost half of the kitchens, food or drink was consumed in food preparation
Additionally, there were several poor food-handling practices
related to the cleaning and sanitation of utensils, equipment, and facilities.
The most common poor practice was the failure to use test strips to check sanitizer
concentration, a practice that was not observed during the audits in any of
the 15 kitchens. The second most frequently observed problem was the inadequate
cleaning and sanitizing of utensils and equipment. Sanitizing of manually washed
dishes was performed infrequently and observed in only 3 of the 15 kitchens.
Although dishes were cleaned, rinsed, and air-dried, they frequently were not
sanitized. Cleaning and sanitizing of food contact surfaces was not observed
in five of the kitchens. In 10 of the kitchens, cleaning and wiping, but not
sanitizing, of food contact surfaces was observed.
These observations of several poor food-handling practices are
consistent with food safety practices observed in other research studies (Brown
et al., 1982; Gilmore et al., 1998; Kim & Shanklin, 1999; Raccach et al.,
1985). The audit tool detected poor food-handling practices that could have
a significant impact on the quality of food served.
CONCLUSIONS AND APPLICATION
The purpose of this study was to develop and test an audit
tool for use in school foodservice. The tool was easy to use and would be a practical
way to conduct a quick assessment of food-handling practices. The tool was useful
in detecting failure to adhere to known standards of food handling in the 15 kitchens
Results from this study suggest that this audit tool could be
useful for school foodservice directors or site managers in identifying poor
employee food-handling practices that could become potential food safety problems.
This tool can be used as is or adapted by school foodservice directors to conduct
food safety self-inspections. In a fairly short time, the audit can provide
school foodservice directors or site managers with a good sample of food-handling
practices of employees. Results of such an audit would be useful for identifying
areas that require additional training and where more supervision and employee
feedback are needed to ensure that standard operating procedures are followed.
In order to ensure that safe food is served to our school children
and that schools' HACCP programs are being followed, the food-handling practices
of school foodservice employees need to be monitored routinely. These audits
could be conducted on an ongoing basis as part of monitoring compliance to food
safety and HACCP programs. The audit form provides documentation of food-handling
practices, and corrective action can be planned as a result.
There were limitations in conducting this study.
First, the audits were conducted in only one region of the country; therefore,
the results cannot be generalized to school foodservice programs nationwide.
While the tool contains many recognized standards for safe food handling, adaptations
may be necessary to focus on areas of particular importance in a school district.
Second, three observers were conducting the audits. Although training had been
conducted and inter-rater reliability determined, discrepancies in interpreting
food-handling practices may have occurred among the observers. Perhaps the tool
could include criteria related to the practices that would improve reliability
among observers. Third, single audits were conducted for approximately two hours
during a similar period in each of the school foodservice operations. The audit
tool may need to be tested during other time periods and for varying lengths
of time. Similarly, food-handling practices may differ from day to day and among
individual employees. Repeated uses of the tool would reveal to managers a consistent
picture of employees' behaviors and may be an appropriate routine strategy for
Several significant poor food-handling practices were observed
during the audits providing an overall profile of employee food safety behaviors.
These audits provided a basis for determining food-handling practices occurring
in these operations and indicated areas requiring attention.
It is recommended that audits be conducted in other regions of
the country to refine the audit tool and to determine if findings in this study
are consistent with operations around the country. Also, research needs to be
conducted to determine school foodservice employees' attitudes toward food safety;
they could provide a means of understanding why some employees do not follow
food safety practices consistently.
The authors thank the California Dietetic Association for the
Zellmer Grant award, which made funding for the project possible. The authors
also acknowledge and thank the Bay Area school foodservice directors whose support
made this research possible.
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Joan Giampaoli is assistant professor, Department
of Nutrition and Food Science, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA. Mary
Cluskey is assistant professor, Department of Nutrition and Food Management,
Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR. Jeannie Sneed is associate professor,
Hotel, Restaurant, and Institution Management, Iowa State University, Ames, IA.