Food Safety in College Dining Halls
In an environment with very high traffic and high volume of food output, college campus dining halls are particularly at risk for food contamination, cross contamination, and violations of routine food safety standards. Many colleges use temporary or “student” help, offer buffet style eating, and/or offer self-service where hundreds of people are touching the same serving spoons/forks/surfaces and are likely not washing their hands again before they eat.
Training on proper food safety techniques is essential for all college dining hall employees. Newly hired dining hall workers may not have experience working in food service and are confronted with a fast-paced environment where quantity is prioritized over quality. Dining hall chefs, for example, who work with raw animal products need to be educated on proper handling and the importance of cooking meats to the minimum internal temperature to prevent infections such as salmonella. Servers need to understand the importance of personal hygiene – and not just for aesthetic purposes! This can be challenging when many of the workers are temporary student workers, whose focus is on their education.
With the on-campus dining plans that universities often provide, at a significant cost, many students have voiced their disapproval with the quality of the food that is served. Wake Forest University senior Madeline Leisenring states:
“after hearing stories from many of my friends about consuming undercooked eggs and meat at our dining halls, food poisoning is definitely a concern when I head to an on-campus restaurant.”
Inspections of college dining halls in the past have revealed a variety of these problems. With so many interwoven pieces, food safety standards can get neglected and, therefore, unsafe conditions can spread and multiply. Ice machines were often moldy and containers that store food products such as salad dressing can go for long periods of time without being cleaned or discarded. Cutting boards can become old and receptacles for food borne pathogens. The proper time is often not dedicated to label everything stored in refrigerators with a ‘use-by’ date, especially because dining halls usually produce ready-to-eat foods in bulk and often re-use left over portions. Ambient foods, that do not require refrigeration, should also be sealed in storage to prevent insect or rodent infestations.
College campuses, like any restaurant, need to practice good food preparation and proper food service. Perhaps even more so, given their high volume and “bulk” production and service. The old adage “too many cooks in the kitchen” might need to be modified to read: ‘Too many people in the buffet line.” Case-in-point, in 2016 there was a big surge in norovirus food poisoning spreading amongst many college campuses such as Miami University of Ohio and University of Michigan. The bulk ready-to-eat foods served as a common source of norovirus, and the close-knit living quarters contributed to it rapid spread.
Schools that have undergone outbreaks have often installed hand sanitizing stations for students to prevent future outbreaks, and these are really half-measures. More importantly, campus food service managers need to b provide more consistent training and daily monitoring of all on-campus food services to prevent the the unsavory interruption to academic life that comes form a food borne illness outbreak.