Monday, March 29, 2010

Jamie Oliver's Food [D]evolution.

The title of this very short blog is clickable, it to see what I'm talking about.

I watched a piece that ABC's Nightline program did about Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution.  It was obviously about his show, but they did that thing where they just put the set and his show in the background without mentioning it as a sort of subliminal advert for the other ABC show.  They show a clip where Oliver is in some lady's kitchen and has conjured up all the things she says she feeds her family during the week and piles all these things on a smallish kitchen table.

She was shamed by this(of course) to the point of tears and he then tells her that this food was endangering her family and shedding years off of their life.  Nightline later shows a clip of lunch ladies being interrogated over food ingredients.  Oliver again asks a shaming question of whether they know all the ingredients in the food item he was looking at.  They didn't.

He was pointing out the 'chemicals' in the foods and was made that these chemicals were being fed to school children.  It's 'chemicals' and deadly additives to Oliver and food activists like him, but to a food scientist, it all makes perfect sense.  In some cases, the ingredients are very familiar(vinegar, baking powder, vitamin c) but regulations require the food companies to use the scientific names so you see things like ascorbic acid, boric acid, and acidic acid(not sure why I listed all acids).  In other cases, the additive serves an important function in relation to shelf life, flavor, color, or it may even be a trace ingredient in another ingredient.  For instance, you may see anti-caking agents mixed in with some flour/salt so they flow in the hopper at the plant. 

Anything currently proven to be a danger is not in use.  Anything GRAS (generally recognized as safe) is at the very least, only used in quantities that have no ill affects.  For instance, an additive may be toxic once an ounce per pound of bodyweight is ingested, but the formulation might never have more than a hundreth of an ounce per serving, meaning that you would need to ingest 100 servings per pound of bodyweight.  So if you weighed 100 pounds, you would need to ingest 1000 servings.

A major problem that food hysterics like Oliver have is that while educated in cooking, they are uneducated about food.  Their ignorance of food science and things like how toxicity levels are determined give them a zero tolerance view on additives without scientific support for it.  The science they do mention always fails to account for the volume of a particular additive it would take to make someone sick.

He makes a remarkable statement that underscores this theme of willful ignorance.  I'm paraphrasing, but he says that if you don't understand something in the ingredient list, don't buy that food.

Let's apply this logic to other things in life, shall we?

Unless you've built computers from scratch and know all the components - don't buy a computer.  If you don't understand the mechanics of the internal combustion engine and other major systems of a car - don't buy one.  You can apply this leap in logic to bug spray, medicine, medical devices, video games, the shoes on your feet, or the paint on your walls.

The lady from the beginning of the story was interviewed and said that thanks to Jaimie's intervening, she has lost 40 lbs.  For her and her kids, she cut out chips, snacks, and pop.  The problem is that she was told those things made her fat, and not that it was the excess calories.  Sure if you stop eating 10% of the foods you normally eat, it stands to reason that you'll lose 10% of the weight.

The problems:

No real education about food and nutrition, just misinformation and scaremongering.  It's awesome that Jamie Oliver teaches people how to use ingredients and plan out and make a meal.  This can save people money and they can lose weight if they reduce their caloric intake.  Also, Nightline offered no interviews with food scientists or food science academics to counter what he said.  Once again, America gets half the story.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hooter's Culture of Critical Safety Violations.

A while back, I wrote a piece that graded Hooter's(they got a C) and provided many suggestions on improvements that need to be made.  A couple weeks back, I had reached a saturation point with Hooter's culture of food safety - or lack there of.  I contacted the person running their twitter acct, who then gave me an email address to officially respond to.  I was happy that my complaints would be taken seriously, and hopeful that I would be part of their process of addressing these issues and ultimately changing them.

I received no response.

I then contacted the Cincinnati Inquirer who gave me an email of a reporter who might take a look into the issue - she didn't.  The Inquirer did suggest that I take the issue up with a local news station, which I haven't done.  I didn't want this to be about me getting on tv.  Before I go any further, let me share the letter I emailed to what I understood to be Hooter's Corporate.

"Dear sir or madame;

   I am Sam Vance.  You know me from as @samvance.  I mean to email you in order to make you aware of issues that may heavily impact your operations, but first, let me give you a background on myself.

   I am a Fall 2007 graduate of The Ohio State University with a degree in Food Business Management.  My studies included deep immersion into food science, food safety, and operations management for the food industry.  I also have several years of management experience in restaurant management with KFC as well as seven years of total work experience at that chain.  I know food safety from both an industrial and a restaurant level and I know chicken.  Of course I'm not bragging, but rather, laying a foundation so that you don't disregard this email as ill-informed or hysterical.  I have long been a fan of Hooters, and let me say that what I tell you or suggest to you in this email should not be construed as me stating my hatred for the chain.  Quite the contrary, I see great opportunities in improving key issues that I have observed in not just the Newport, KY location, but across several states.

   I went to the Newport location last evening to take advantage of the All You Can Eat promotion and sat at the bar since I was dining alone.  What I observed in the next hour or so astounded me.

I witnessed numerous instances of cross contamination, including:

*Employees grabbing flour covered baskets, then immediately grabbing bowls to sauce wings as well as grabbing the wings themselves.
*I saw an employee put a dirty bowl on top of a bowl of cooked and unsauced wings in order to carry them both to another table.
*I saw sauced chicken falling off the bowl of cooked product on to the uncleaned prep table, only to be picked up and set on the plate and served.
*Employees who had just removed their vinyl gloves(after touching raw product, as they should) but then carrying the bowl used to toss the wings with their bare hands(with their thumb inside of the sauce covered bowl).  This bowl was used for the rest of the night without being cleaned.

*I personally witnessed the manager, Chris, handle prepared foods with his bare hands. His hands were flour covered.  He also picked up a stray tater-tot from the prep table and put it on a customers plate.  He then wipes his floured hands on the front of his jeans before scooping cheese sauce for a server.  He had flour going up his arm to the elbow and the flour by his elbow remained the entire time I was there.  During this time he was constantly reaching into and over things.

  I will say that the two black guys working in the back did an excellent job swapping out gloves in between going from raw to cooked, but all kitchen employees(manager included) treated the gloves as an alternative to hand washing.  In most cases, they wore the gloves too long, didn't wash hands before changing gloves, and did a poor job in the few instances that hands were washed(like still having flour on the arm an hour later).  I'll also say that I have never seen a manager wear a hat when going back to help in the kitchen.  Why?  The cooks obviously cover their heads and so should the manager.

  This all seems very harsh, but let me say that this is a system wide issue.  I have seen issues similar to this and a couple worse in Hooter's in Burlington VT, Columbus OH, other Cincinnati area locations, and in Florida.  My reaction would be to assume that either this is common practice, or this is unavoidable due to the procedures in place.  Either way, your chain plays Russian Roulette with the public's safety on a daily basis and it is miraculous that you have avoided major lawsuits.  This could be due to the fact that people get food borne illness many more times a year than what is reported and since this is a bar, the patrons may be blaming some of it on the alcohol.  Of course, the other explanation is much more sad - they don't complain because that is the kind of thing they expect from Hooters.

   Let me also say that the bartender who served me last night(Chrissy/Christy?) was very nice and even sensed that something was wrong.  In fact, she notified Chris, who personally came over to ask if everything was alright.  I didn't bring any of this up because in a crowded restaurant, I'm sure Chris would have only become defensive and suspected that I was trying to cause a scene.  He even sensed that I was holding something back when he asked, 'Are you sure?'

   This issue goes beyond one location, however, and several changes do need to take place in order to reduce your system's liability.  I have many ideas that will streamline some of your processes as well as guard against food safety issues.  If you like, I can discuss these over the phone or in person.  Again, I am not trying to harm this restaurant chain.  I am a fan of the food and want to help Hooters operate in a way which doesn't put the consumer's safety at risk.

Thank you for your time and consideration in both reading and responding to this email,
Sam Vance.

614.905.xxxx Feel free to call."

I redacted the last 4 digits of my cell phone  numbers and corrected the word 'excellent', which I misspelled.  Other than that, this was the email I sent and the issues are very real.

For those unaware, cross contamination is anytime cooked product comes into contact with uncooked product.  For example:
Raw chicken is breaded in <---> flour.
Flour is on employees <---> hands(gloves optional here).
Uncleaned  hand touches <---> fry basket and is lowered into the fryer.
Product done & another employee lifts fry basket with <---> flour on the handle.
Product dumped into metal bowl <---> bowl carried by hand that touched flour(with thumb hooking inside of the bowl).
Product taken out of that bowl by hand and placed into yet <---> another bowl.
Bowl gripped on the side with thumb on the inside of the saucing bowl <---> and sauce is added and tossed with the wings.
Wing dumped onto a plate which are served <---> to you.
It may seem inconsequential, but you have now ingested whatever salmolnella was in that chicken before cooking due to cross contamination.  Although the wings are heated to a high enough temperature to kill bacteria and the sauce probably has a low enough amount of free water to prevent bacterial growth, the mixture of chicken grease, sauce residue(same bowls used all night), and freshly inoculated thumb do create an environment where harmful microorganisms can not only survive, but thrive.  The surface of the wing is not hot enough for long enough to kill the bacteria it encounters after cooking.

A week after this incident, which occurred the last Wednesday in February, I ventured out to the Florence Hooter's to see if things were any better.

They were not.

The added insult to injury was the inattentive service I got, partly due to it being during a shift change and partly due to the bartender chatting with the regulars.  The kitchen was left understaffed for the shift change.  I'm not sure if people were late, or there was only one 1st shifter in the kitchen, but there was only one person for a while.  The number one enemy of food safety is time.  Something left out too long creates an environment where bacteria grow, and not enough time in the kitchen means that corners get cut.  Food safety lives in these corners and this is where people get sick.

The lone cook, who I think was named Aaron or Eric, had a very troublesome habit.  He worked with a vinyl glove on one hand and no glove on another.  I have observed this practice at several locations, including the putrid Newport restaurant.  People are supposed to be told that these gloves are no substitute for hand washing and that the gloves have to be changed whenever going from raw to cooked or non-food to food.  My theory is that this cook worked Jackson Style to avoid washing his hands and changing his glove.  The ungloved hand held the sauce bowl(thumb in bowl!!) while the gloved hand breaded the product.  When he needed to plate food, he took off the glove but did not wash his hands.

The title to this blog is a clickable link.  You'll see that I'm not alone in these complaints.  If Hooter's management reads this and is upset... you should be.  Correct this before it really costs you.  I am more than willing to consult with you on ways to improve your processes and increase safety.  This blog is long enough and I think I'll leave my specific suggestions for another time.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Real Food.

I have yet to weigh in on the 'real food' phenomenon, so here it goes...

I am a big fan of language. Words matter to me and I try to be very measured in what I type or say. Now I don't want to get into the whole sender-receiver model of communication, but it's important that the words we say are understood by the receiver to have the same meaning. So when someone says something is hot, it's important whether the receiver thinks you mean temperature or flavor.

CNN picked up on a blogger's challenge to eat only real food for a month

Within the article, they define real food as not processed foods. They actually say what real food isn't and not what real food is, which I think is intriguing. They define processed food as: "... any food that has undergone a change of character. For example, edamame would be unprocessed, and tofu would be processed."


Processed foods are foods that have a process applied to them. This includes rinsing, chopping, heating, freezing, beating (as in sheer force aka meringue or butter), or sanitizing. Unless you eat your organic grown veggies whole without cooking them, you are eating a processed food.

Any milk that isn't raw would also be considered processed, and therefore, not 'real'.

This can't be the intended definition of real food though, right? Seems a bit too strict, paranoid, and in many instances - dangerous. What do they really mean by 'real food'?

I'll take a crack at it.

They mean guilt free, non-corporate, and pretty.

These labels that the ironically labeled foodies put forth are a complicated mix of all the vitriol and mistrust they feel about the world around them. You see, they feel the corporations are all corrupt and are conspiring to poison the masses and control them through their fake foods. Let's run down the list of these corporate supported evils, shall we?

Instant potatoes - [gasp] The absolute worst. You should be ashamed if you don't have an hour to peel and boil potatoes, then mash them with cream.
**reality** They are mashed potatoes. They're just drum dried (dehydrated) so that they are shelf stable.

American Cheese Singles - Too lazy to invest in a good cheese slicer? No self respecting foodie would be caught dead with this in their refrigerator!
**reality** Developed in Europe, American cheese is made of the melted remnants of other cheeses. It's now made in a more consistant way, but isn't technically a vat cheese. Whether sliced off a block or peeled from the plastic, American Cheese melts better than most and has a mild flavor profile, making it ideal for sandwiches.

Sugar - Did you know that sugar makes everybody fat, causes diabetes, and probably hates minorities. It's so evil, because it's processed.
**reality** I prefer to use sugar that has been inspected, purified, and separated from most pebbles, dirt, and insect parts. Sugar is a food for fermentation also, resulting in alcohol, carbon dioxide, or both. Sugar sweetens foods, helps it brown when baked, and binds free water - making it safe from certain microorganisms.

The truth.

Real food is anything you eat and digest that offers calories and/or nutrition(carbs, vitamins, proteins, fats). When you hear someone talk about 'real food', your ears should perk up and you should start asking questions. You'll almost always find hidden motives, agendas, and irrational paranoia just below the surface.