By Jason Masters
Environmental Health Director
Q: Jason. I’ve got a question. I read ALL your articles, and I’m not sure how I feel about you using my name all the time as an example. I mean, just because I’ve got a big burly beard and I work at a restaurant doesn’t mean I’m so gross. I’m just a person, same as you. By the way, what’s the problem with beards? What is the length of beard that is OK to have? I think you’ve got something against people with hair just because you’re bald… And why did you take points off of our inspection for having our cell phones and cigarettes laying on the prep table? We don’t have much time to smoke, and we need to keep our materials close by. I’ve seen you in my restaurant before, and I’ll be waiting for YOU in the parking lot…
A: Wow…well Bubba, those are good questions, and I’m hoping we can settle this without coming to blows. A beard and/or hair restraint is something that the 2017 NC food code requires all food employees engaged in food preparation to wear. Does that mean that everyone is going to wear one? Nope. Not gonna happen. But before we answer your questions, we need to look a little deeper as to why hair restraints are required in the first place, and why it’s not OK to leave your smokes and cell phones all over the prep tables.
The hair restraint requirement is, despite its name, not as much about keeping hair out of foods, as it is discouraging food employees from touching their face, head and body. Think about all the things on your head and face for a second… hairspray, gel, conditioner, did you work out before coming to work? Got some tasty sweat up there? Did you take a shower today? Sometimes people don’t… Remember that parking lot you were walking through earlier, where that guy was blowing leaves and stirring up dust? Remember how you cursed at him for blowing dirt in your face while he was laughing? (*Smug jerk with his safety glasses and orange vest*) Think any of that dirt and dust got trapped in your hair (and/or beard)? What about those crumbs from that chicken sandwich you got at the mall while you shopping for some new kicks? Remember how they stayed in your beard after you dunked that last fry in the ketchup? Mmmm. Well, all those hair products, sweat, dust, dirt, crumbs, and whatever else you can think of cause your head and face to itch. And what happens when you itch? You scratch! And what happens when you scratch? You contaminate your hands! And what happens when you contaminate your hands? Unless you wash immediately, you’re going to contaminate food, or cleaned utensils, or single service items, or whatever. And of course, while we realize that wearing a hair and/or beard restraint won’t stop you from itching, it may at least prevent you from contaminating your hands or gloves. The food code does not specify a particular length of beard that is acceptable. It simply states that exposed hair must be restrained by clothing, hats, nets, chefs hats, sombreros, etc. (OK I added the chefs hats and sombreros, but I’d be cool with that). Some establishments have a policy that allows them to have a particular length of exposed hair or beard, however, the policy of any establishment does not trump the NC food code. Now I’m not trying to be a Grumpy Gus here, but if we see you without a restraint, we are going to mark it. Go ahead and get some big, burly beard restraints. Now with all that being said, while finding a hair in your food is sometimes appetite-killing, it’s probably not going to make you sick. (I mean sick from foodborne illness, not grossed out…) BUT, finding a hair in your food is one thing… realizing you have one in your mouth, and feeling it unwind around your teeth, through whatever glob of food you are chewing, and across your tongue is a sensory experience that one must live through to truly appreciate.
Now before we get into the other part of your question Bubba, let’s talk about something else related to hand washing. If you’ve been an avid reader of my past articles, you are already familiar with the importance of handwashing. And unless you’ve been in Lake Diefenbaker for the past 25 years, you are undoubtedly familiar with that sign in all the restaurant restrooms that specifically mentions how all employees are required to wash their hands using soap and warm water before leaving the restroom. That’s not just a suggestion, that’s part of the NC food code. Now, what I want to talk about for a second is the other part of that requirement. The hand drying part. Seems like everyone forgets about that part (or just doesn’t care). The hand drying rule states that an approved method for drying hands must be in place at every hand wash sink. That means you have to have paper towels, or an air dryer, or napkins to dry your hands. One study (shown here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3538484/#:~:text=care%E2%80%93associated%20infections.-,The%20proper%20drying%20of%20hands%20after%20washing%20should%20be%20an,contamination%20of%20the%20washroom%20environment ) indicates that drying your hands with paper towels is the most effective method. In fact, a 95% reduction of Staph Aureus was measured just after rinsing with water and drying with a paper towel! This indicates that just the simple friction of hands on paper towels produces significant results (in your favor!) when it comes to reducing the number of active bacteria on your hands. That’s a lot.
Your REO Speedwagon shirt (although awesome) is not an approved hand drying device. Your Levi 501 jeans are not an approved hand drying device. It is already well known throughout the scientific community that wet hands are more likely to spread bacteria and viruses. Think of it this way…you know when you’re at the beach, and you come splashing out of the ocean from a hardcore session of body surfing, and just as you fall on that vintage Thundercats (HOOOOO!) beach towel you reach up to wipe the salty ocean water out of your eyes, but you realize that your hands are covered with sand? Well, that’s the same thing that happens when you don’t properly dry your hands after washing. All that sand? Might as well be bacteria and viruses. Keep that in mind the next time you go down to Myrtle Beach…
Alright, now let’s get to the other part of your question… Why can’t you leave your personal items on or above prep areas? What’s the big deal? This is actually pretty self-explanatory, and, I get it… It’s easy and convenient to leave your stuff where you can grab it when you need it. Makes perfect sense. The problem isn’t so much where it IS, as where it’s BEEN. Let’s think about this for a second. Where do you normally keep your cell phone and cigarettes? Probably in your pocket or purse. What else is in there? Keys, cash, Chapstick, credit cards, dirt, hair, glass eye…could be anything. All those things have the potential to contaminate each other, and consequently, you. And let’s be honest, OK? We all take our cell phones places that we probably shouldn’t. I’m talking about the gym… or…other places… (you know what I’m talking about). In fact, a pretty recent article in TIME magazine (http://time.com/4908654/cell-phone-bacteria/) has indicated that a study performed at the University of Arizona found ten times more bacteria on cell phones than the average toilet seat. That’s pretty gross. Now with all that being said, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to get sick by talking to your granny when she calls to tell you “happy birthday”, but just as all those contaminants move from your environment to your personal stuff, so can those contaminants move from a cell phone to a cutting board or prep area. The best course of action is to leave all your stuff somewhere away from your workspace so you don’t get distracted and inadvertently contaminate everything you come in contact with. And keep this in mind, Bubba… When you have your cell phone on that prep table, listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn, and slicing prime rib, what happens when you get a text from your buddy with that gif of the cat knocking things off the table? I know what I would do…I would look at my phone! So would you! Great, you just contaminated your hands again. Are you going to wash? That sink is all the way across the kitchen…. Nobody is looking, so you say forget it, and keep on cutting while the image of that cat pushing the remote off the shelf lingers in your head, and you just stand there… chuckling, slicing, and contaminating every bite of that moist meat… Yum.
Stay safe, friends!