Today, a senior living resident might have coffee and a bagel at an outdoor café, use a touchscreen to order lunch at a deli counter, and have dinner in a bistro-style open-kitchen restaurant, without leaving the community.
But each type of dining carries different risks. Everything from the way people order, to food prep, to serving and delivery is undergoing a shift—and that shift calls for new approaches to food safety and dining operations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the number of U.S. deaths from foodborne illnesses at 3,000 a year—and older adults are more at risk for contracting such illnesses and for suffering worse effects.
Fighting this are systems that “take food safety to the next level,” says William Weichelt, director of food safety and industry relations at the National Restaurant Association (NRA). Dining has been moving from an approach that is reactive to incidents to one that is proactive and preventive. Where once the food safety process started with an incident and traced back to see what went wrong, new systems establish a continuous improvement cycle to prevent problems.
As for how the proactive approach works in the day-to-day, Weichelt cites Active Managerial Control practices, using a spaghetti sauce as an example: It must be cooked to a certain degree, then cooled twice, each time to a specific degree in specific amounts of time, then stored under refrigeration. The food safety system would dictate the cooling times and degree check—and if the sauce didn’t cool to the right degree in time, it would provide a corrective action for the employee to take.
If the problem happens often, the manager makes the corrective action part of the system moving ahead. Management can check the data to refine processes as needed.
Such a system provides a lot more knowhow to employees, but it asks more of them, too. The biggest impact for senior living is in documentation and training. The check-ins can seem as numerous as those readying a plane for takeoff, but digital systems and cloud providers can smooth the way.
Those working in dining would still need to have food safety training, such as ServSafe, the NRA’s recognized certification for food professionals. Argentum has recently begun a partnership whereby members can get a discount on course materials for the ServSafe exam, which covers food safety, allergens, and alcohol.
Not only changing venues but changing tastes need new attention as well—and these extend beyond the kitchen. “From the point of view of the supplier, our world is getting smaller,” Weichelt says.
“We can get ingredients from all over the world—and people want to have those options. You need to ensure your supply chain is working well and your suppliers are reputable, and take special considerations for different types of shelf life.”
Open kitchens, “marketplace” dining with several kiosks, and pub dining are other trends that increase resident choice and satisfaction, but also carry some risks. For instance, touchscreens, becoming ubiquitous, require special cleaning.
“The back of the room has moved to the front, and chefs are on display,” says Shawn Yingling, president at Glatfelter Healthcare Practice, which provides insurance and risk management for senior living and related organizations.
“Sous chefs may be slicing everything up right up front, there are flames shooting out of the pans, and there’s often counter seating,” he adds, which is great for solo diners and social interaction. But it also requires attention to chef training as well as to design—getting the right counter heights and edges, for instance.
Outdoor venues need to be designed to protect diners from strong sun or wind, with sturdy furnishings, and outdoor kitchens need attention to holding temperatures and insect hazards.
But in the dining room, “the number one risk is the same as across all of senior living: falls,” says Elizabeth Norman, director of risk control services for Glatfelter.
A recurring potential trouble point is on holidays, when families, mobility devices, extra chefs or buffet stations, decorations, and musicians or other entertainment up the traffic flow. Advance planning can make these smoother.
Advances in flooring, particularly use of poured floor surfaces, help keep spills from becoming a slip hazard. However, Glatfelter has found dining-area falls aren’t usually related to anything specific to the environment—they don’t happen in any greater proportion than in other areas.
Alternate dining options may require more staff, Yingling points out, as well as more staff training. “Flexible dining schedules and more food available at more times makes it easier for residents to have a healthy diet—but it’s no longer a healthy choice if it’s not properly taken care of.”
“And there are more people holding food-related social events, such as cooking demonstrations and wine tastings,” Norman adds. Chefs or visitors holding these can model good preparation practices. In fact, these can be opportunities to pass along food safety knowledge to residents in an enjoyable way.
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