Answering YOUR Food Safety Hot Topics

In “Three Former Health Inspectors Walk Into a School Kitchen…” (September 2020), School Nutrition shared the unique reflections of three current school nutrition operators who once worked in the public health department. Dan Ellnor, Assistant Director, School & Community Nutrition Services, Jefferson County (Ky.) Public Schools; Jessica Shelly, MBA, RHS, RS, SNS, Director of Student Dining Services; and Shonia Hall, RSP, SNS, Director, School Nutrition Services, Oklahoma City Public Schools, also gave a presentation on this topic at SNA’s 2019 Annual National Conference, offering top tips and busting common myths. (A video is available on SNA’s online Training Zone,, click on #ANC19 Videos, for viewing and CEU credit for a modest fee.) They surveyed school nutrition professionals through social media to identify some of the areas of greatest confusion when it comes to following food safety practices.

One of these, say the three sanitarians, is in properly managing food temperatures, especially of commercially processed, ready-to-eat foods that will be held hot for service. These do not have to go to 165F, if it’s not a raw product, they explain. (That’s because the food was already cooked to 165F before it got to you.) Know your temperatures; read the preparation instructions from the supplier. For most of these foods, the minimum internal cooking temperature—usually 135F to 140F for 15 seconds—is sufficient. “We don’t want to ‘kill’ our food. We are in the business of foodservice and we have to keep food quality in mind, along with safety.  We want to serve chicken nuggets, not hockey pucks,” says Ellnor. “Avoid the temptation of thinking that “more is ‘gooder’—if 140 is safe, then 240F must be safer! Not true. We want kids to eat and enjoy our food, while being safe.”

In Oklahoma City Public Schools, “I tell my staff that thermometers are their BFF all the time,” says Hall. “But if you’re not calibrating that thermometer, are you sure that the temperature was 141? Are you? And if you didn’t document when you calibrated that thermometer, did it happen? “It did not,” responds Ellnor. Expect this question: “How often should I calibrate my thermometer? Daily? Weekly? Monthly?” The answer, says Hall, is: “What does your HACCP plan say?”

Another common myth in the “more is better” arena is in the use of cleaning and sanitizing products. Using more bleach doesn’t make things cleaner or safer. In fact, says Ellnor, this is a huge takeaway for our current COVID world. “Most people think that do a better job, they need to glug, glug, glug away. But that can cause a more hazardous situation. Always use chemicals—cleaners, sanitizers and disinfectants—as directed on the label.

Pay attention as to whether products can be used on food-contact surfaces. Many germicides are, essentially, pesticides, notes Ellnor, and can’t be used on items where food is prepared or served. “If you are unsure of what chemical you should be using for COVID, call your local health inspector,” advises Hall. “I did. I asked for advice on what to use on non-food-contact, high-touch points like light switches, milk box lids and tray slides.”

Another caution, Ellnor warns, is to guard against mixing chemicals. He shares the story of an enthusiastic worker who thought (wrongly) that it would be helpful to run bleach in the dish machine while it was being de-limed. The result was a chlorine gas cloud that caused the school to be evacuated—fortunately, no one was hurt.

The trio also caution against allowing any staff to bring in their “special cleaners” from home. Not only do you run risks for dangerous mixtures, but if someone were to be accidentally squirted in the eye, it will be difficult to get appropriate treatment for the unapproved, off-bid cleaner. “If you’re having trouble getting something clean, contact your director or your supplier. It’s usually a matter of user error,” says Ellnor. 

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