Uniform Handling Critical to Food Safety

In this exclusive interview, Al Baroudi, Ph.D., president of president of Food Safety Institute International, discusses what drives his relentless pursuit of food safety and what makes handling of uniforms a critical control point.

By Heidi Parsons, Digital Managing Editor

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Ata “Al” Baroudi, Ph.D., president of Food Safety Institute (FSI) International, takes food safety very seriously — not just professionally, but personally as well. For example, he tells the story of the time he and his family went to a moderately priced chain restaurant for dinner and, as is his modus operandi, he made a beeline for the restroom. “You can tell a lot about the cleanliness standards of a restaurant by the state of its restrooms,” he explains. “If they don’t have soap, hot water and paper towels in the restrooms, they obviously don’t expect their employees to have clean hands.”

Upon entering the restroom, he noticed one of the stalls was occupied, so he killed some time at the sink, waiting to find out if the person was an employee or a customer. Sure enough, a uniformed employee of the restaurant emerged from the stall, walked right past Baroudi — and the sink — and exited the restroom. Baroudi followed and watched the employee enter the kitchen and resume his job — as head cook.

Baroudi went to his table and when the waitperson came by, Baroudi asked to see the manager. He told the manager that he and his family would not be staying for dinner because the restaurant’s sanitation practices were inadequate. The manager began defending his establishment and offered to show Baroudi the sanitation policies and procedures manual. Baroudi replied that the manual was worthless if the staff did not follow those procedures, and the manager began to protest again. Baroudi then pointed out the head cook and explained that he had seen the cook leave the restroom without washing his hands. Desperately trying to retain his customer, the manager offered to give Baroudi and his family their meals at no charge. Baroudi answered, “Oh, so you want to kill me for free?” He handed the manager his business card and gave a brief explanation of what he does for a living, then left the restaurant, never to return.

If that anecdote suggests Baroudi has strict standards and exacting expectations, some of his other experiences may explain why. When he worked for the Vons supermarket chain, he thwarted a lawsuit brought by a woman who claimed that tainted ground beef from Vons caused her elderly mother to fall ill and die. The coroner had found the cause of death to be complications from an Escherichia coli O157:H7 infection, and the Jack-in-the-Box food poisoning incident had recently been in the news, so the woman made what she thought was a logical connection.

Baroudi, however, approached the case without preconceptions and went to work like a CSI forensics specialist. He sent samples from the lot of ground beef from which the plaintiff’s package had come to an independent lab for testing. The result: The meat was negative for E. coli O157:H7. He shared those results with an official at the local health department, who then accompanied Baroudi to the woman’s home. When they questioned the woman, it came to light that although she had cooked the hamburger thoroughly, she had fed it to her elderly mother by hand. It was a lengthy process, during which she had gone to the bathroom and, she admitted, had not washed her hands before resuming the feeding. Analysis of a stool sample revealed that the plaintiff’s own hygienic negligence had caused her mother’s death.

A step up — into the back of a truck

Sad tales such as that one — as well as Centers for Disease Control estimates that each year, 76 million Americans get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 people die from foodborne illnesses — motivate Baroudi to be hypervigilant about food safety and sanitation. So, when Aramark Uniform Services asked him to help develop a top-notch HACCP program, he rolled up his sleeves and immersed himself in the business.

“It was a challenge for me; I had to ‘live’ this industry [uniform services] until I knew every step in the process intimately,” Baroudi says. “I rode the delivery trucks, went into customers’ plants with Aramark’s staff — I went through their entire program. Then we broke down all the critical control points and developed standard operating procedures (SOPs) for each one.” (See diagram below or refer to Baroudi’s white paper, “A Uniform Approach to HACCP,” for details on Aramark Uniform Services’ HACCP program.)

Aramark uniform care cycle
Figure 1. This diagram shows the steps — i.e. the critical control points — in Aramark's uniform care cycle. Click here for a larger version of this figure.

Baroudi’s white paper describes the many steps in Aramark’s HACCP plan, but he stresses that a successful HACCP program “is a partnership — it works both ways. The garment is just one piece of the puzzle.”

It is essential, says Baroudi, for food processors to use reputable suppliers, and determining which suppliers are reputable means doing research on them, finding out about their HACCP programs and asking their customers about the service they provide. Just as essential, however, is each facility’s training of and communication with its own employees. As part of its HACCP program, Aramark Uniform Services can help food processors develop HACCP documentation and train employees in HACCP.

Regarding the cost of using a uniform supply company both to provide uniforms and keep them clean and sanitized, Baroudi says it amounts to pennies per garment and, more importantly, equates to an insurance policy against product contamination. Data from USDA’s Economic Research Service reveal that each year, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157 alone cause approximately 73,480 cases of foodborne illness, at an estimated cost of more than $431 million.

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