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Uniform Handling Critical to Food Safety

July 18, 2006
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.

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.)

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.

“One incident [of foodborne illness] is one too many,” he remarks. “Think of what’s at stake: legal fees, compensatory damages, regulatory action, fines, lost business, damage to your company’s reputation . . . Aramark is providing a value-added service, because they don’t just launder the garments, they provide total HACCP support.”

Besides, Baroudi notes, cleaning and sanitizing uniforms to HACCP standards is no cakewalk. Depending upon which fabric the garments are made from, specific wash temperatures and chemical formulas must be used. In addition to detergent, 50-150 ppm of chlorine bleach should be used in the wash cycle, followed by the addition of a mild acid to balance pH.

Aramark Uniform Services recognized it would be hard-pressed to guarantee that its own staff would be using the right chemicals in the right amounts consistently. Thus, to facilitate meeting its own HACCP standards, the company partnered with Ecolab (St. Paul, Minn.; www.ecolab.com) to develop proprietary laundry formulations.

Play to your strengths

Aramark’s collaboration with Ecolab allowed it to focus on further honing its own skills. Similarly, Baroudi suggests using a reputable supplier for uniform services may allow food processors to zero in on the most critical item and the weakest link in any HACCP program: the human element.

“Of all the critical control points in a food plant, the two greatest concerns are cross-contamination and people who may be ill without showing symptoms,” he states. “Like the lady who unintentionally killed her own mother through her failure to wash her hands after using the bathroom, many people simply don’t know what is the right thing to do and why it is so important.

“Your employees must know their role as food handlers,” he adds. “Once they understand that, then each of them acts as an inspector. That doesn’t mean you tell them once and expect them to keep it in mind; you have to reinforce it with ongoing training and communication.”

Training and communication needs to include details such as “employees must change out of their uniforms when they leave the floor for lunch” and “employees must change coats if they go from a ready-to-eat area to a raw food area.” Demonstration of proper handwashing procedures is paramount. To help workers comprehend and visualize what constitutes appropriate personal hygiene, Baroudi recommends, “just ask them to think about doctors going in and out of a hospital operating room. They may not think they have the same level of responsibility, but in both situations, human lives may be at stake.”

About Al Baroudi

Al Baroudi, Ph.D., is the president of Food Safety Institute (FSI), International, a Henderson, Nev.-based consulting company with offices in Newport Beach, Calif. FSI specializes in food-safety best practices and quality assurance throughout the food supply chain. A veteran of the food industry, Baroudi has worked throughout the world, spearheading food research and developing quality-assurance programs for clients, ranging from governments to multi-billion-dollar corporations. FSI works with companies such as Yum! Brands, Safeway, Hidden Villa Ranch, Woodward Labs, Quaker, Arrowsight/ADT and many others.

Baroudi’s specialization also has given him the opportunity to regularly train food-safety auditors and inspectors in the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; and federal, state and local health agencies. He earned a Ph.D. in Food Processing and Technology from Ohio State University and a Master’s in Food Science and Technology from University of California, Davis.

Baroudi’s background includes working as the head of quality assurance (QA) and food safety at Borden, where he oversaw QA operations at 89 plants in Borden’s dairy division. Baroudi has served as vice president for corporate QA, food safety and environmental affairs at Vons (a $5.5 billion division of Safeway), as vice president of QA and technical services for Harry & David Corp. and as the chief scientific, health and regulatory affairs officer of Yum! Brands (a $35 billion corporation; foodservice operations under the Yum umbrella include KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, A & W and Long John Silver’s).

He has appeared on several TV and radio talk shows as a food-safety expert and has served on the Blue Ribbon Task Force Committee on E. coli O157:H7. He served on the board of directors of the International HACCP Alliance and is a member of the board of advisors for the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

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