March was an incredibly busy month for us at Orange Door Hospitality and among the many rewarding activities that I found myself involved with were two that informed each other in an unexpected way. The first was the latest James Beard Foundation Chef’s Boot Camp for Policy & Change, and the second was the process of getting my ServSafe Manager Certification. This time around the Chef’s Boot Camp was focused on food waste and how chefs can use their various platforms to advocate for solutions that reduce food waste on a regulatory and policy level. Days after returning home from Georgia I began studying for the ServSafe test and was immediately confronted with the reality that food safety and reducing food waste are sometimes in direct conflict with one another.
ServSafe is a program of the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA) and is based largely on the Food Code established by the Food & Drug Administration that sets forth food safety recommendations for states and municipalities. Obviously preventing customers from contracting a food borne illness should be the number one priority for every food establishment, and I believe that 90% of the ServSafe content is invaluable information for anyone who works with food. That being said, ServSafe and the underlying Food Code recommend many actions that create a culture of excessive vigilance that can lead directly to increased food waste. (They can also lead to downright overcooked food and other culinary atrocities – have fun with that chicken cooked to 165°F – but that is a topic for a future blog post!)
Among the most problematic aspects for ServSafe in regards to food waste are the storage guidelines for some types of food and the attitude toward expiration dates. In general, ServSafe dictates that any product you open and then store in your fridge has to be used within seven days or thrown out. For example, if you were to open a container of sauerkraut and only use some of it that day, the rest should be labeled with a use by date of that day plus 7 days, and then pitched if not used by then. For anyone who has ever had some sauerkraut lying around the fridge, you know that it can last seemingly FOREVER. There are literally hundreds of food items that will be perfectly safe and delicious beyond seven days if stored in proper refrigeration. There is a huge opportunity to reduce food waste here by training food handlers to use their senses (especially sight and smell) to make decisions about when food should be served and when it should be tossed.
This same training would be incredibly valuable when applied to the issue of expiration dates. Expiration dates (or best by dates, use by dates, etc.) are just as likely to be based on arbitrary regulations as they are on science, and often have little to do with the safety of the food itself. The Food Code would have us pitching every single item that hits this date, with little regard for common sense or what some basic observations can tell us. So much food is wasted due to this misconception and fear of expiration dates, and a less dogmatic approach by ServSafe and the Food Code could go along way to reducing food waste and improving the bottom line for food businesses.
I believe that those of us who serve food to others for a living can preserve public safety and prevent the outbreak of food borne illnesses without strict adherence to some aspects of the Food Code. We need to take a more skills-based approach to training food handlers and strive to create a culture of common sense and critical thinking in kitchens. Our leading chefs and restaurateurs simply do not train a high enough percentage of food handlers to create a lasting cultural change in our country’s kitchens. We need trainings like ServSafe to evolve in order to reinforce a new set of values and priorities.
Reducing food waste in the U.S. is not only an enormous economic opportunity, but also can pay a key role in reducing hunger. If you want to learn more on the topic please spend some time on ReFED’s website. ReFED is a collaboration of leading businesses, nonprofits, foundations and government leaders committed to reducing food waste in the U.S.