© Ravi Wazir, 2020

Does Food Safety Really Matter?

I picked up the food I’d accidentally just dropped on the floor and looked at my mother in anticipation. She would now either nod to indicate that it was alright to eat or then shake her head asking me to dump it.

I was seven years old and amazed about this unique magical power my mum had. As I discovered that other mums also seemed to have this superpower, I was a little disappointed... but diligently tried to understand how it worked.

The general rules went like this:

  1. It was alright to eat a dry item off the floor though not a wet one
  2. The floor of our house was more likely alright to eat off than the floor of someone else’s house. (Meaning one’s own floor was somehow automatically cleaner than that of others)
  3. It was alright to eat food off the floor when one’s immediate family or some “special” friends were looking on... but not when outsiders who we considered more important were watching. (Outsiders had to be showed that we were not dirty or cheap. Insiders had to be showed that we didn’t like wasting food and that we understood the importance of eating off the floor in strengthening our immune systems).

As an adult working in the hospitality industry, when I caught a fairly accomplished American chef in the act of promptly eating off the floor, I realised that such house rules for food safety seemed to transcend all nationality, wealth and education. He was nonchalant about it and pointed out with conviction about just how fine he’d turned out.

That’s when I asked myself whether the food safety I learnt about in hotel school, was really practically useful... at all. Even today, so many industry seniors advocate it but don’t truly believe in it. Why?

Conflicting evidence it appears...

On one hand we’ve “seen” cooked food kept at incorrect temperatures go putrid; on the other we’ve “seen” food eaten off the floor stay safe.

Here’s what we often miss... cooked food kept at incorrect temperatures will go putrid. Food eaten off the floor may be safe. The difference being – the certainty of this happening. In an industry where we profess guest experience to be at our core, how can we permit ourselves the chance of messing up that experience through uncertainty? Why do we view food safety merely as a certification or an exercise to avoid getting sued; rather than as a proactive step to deliver a consistent guest experience... which is what food safety is really about.

Once an organization acknowledges that educating its team in food handling methods of hygiene and temperature will help it significantly reduce errors in guest experience, it will make the practice of food safety an internal and voluntary mandate... rather than one enforced by food authorities.

More importantly, once we accept that before food is made tasty or healthy, it’d have to be safe to serve in the first place, we’d all be better in prioritizing our guest experience at large.

Once I understood this, I found myself tremendously concerned about watching malpractices on the food safety front by teams that had yet to realise what was at stake. In one instance, the service team was actually advised to collect “untouched” rocket leaves from guest plates and return them to a chilling bowl since they were expensive and often found untouched by guests since they were bitter. Besides the obvious guest prerogative of safety from the hazard of “illness transference” from a possibly contaminated guest; I highlighted the other obvious aspect of guest preference towards bitter rocket leaves. This was clearly, not as obvious to the team that indulged in such a practise till I brought it to their attention.

So I urge you...

American writer James Baldwin once said “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”

Is that what we want our business to be?