The Ultimate Guide to Digital Food Safety

Food safety is one of the most crucial parts of operating a restaurant. Without a solid food safety strategy, the rest of your business is on shaky ground. 

“Individuals at every level of the supply chain hold responsibility and commitment to thoroughly inspect food products and handle them with extreme safety.”

– CoverWallet, “The Importance of Food Safety for Restaurants”

Consider this your go-to guide to understanding why food safety is not only something you should be paying attention to but a part of your business that deserves resources and active investment. (And don’t forget to collect the bonus content when you download the PDF version of the guide, at the bottom of this page!)

We’ll start by defining what food safety exactly means, and why it’s as important as we’ve stated. 

What is Food Safety?

Food safety “refers to the conditions and practices that preserve the quality of food to prevent contamination and food-borne illnesses.”, according to the USDA. In other words, it is a safeguard against preparing and serving contaminated or spoiled food. These safeguards include things like: proper food storage and refrigeration, keeping food prep areas and utensils clearly marked, clean and sanitary, and cooking food to safe temperatures.

If your operations aren’t currently running with a structured food safety system in place, you’re constantly open to the risk of serving food that could make customers ill. Besides the stress and uncertainty that undoubtedly causes, it’s also not good business.

Without proper guidelines and tools, food contamination can be undetectable. Every so often, an abnormal smell or color can tip you off to unsafe food, but more commonly, contamination happens quickly and under the radar. This is why a stable structure and process is imperative – to recognize and prevent mistakes from becoming full-blown safety issues.

4 Principles of Food Safety

Implementing a complete food safety plan can take time and resources, but it’s a worthwhile investment. Even in the early phases of food safety, these four basic principles will get you started on the right path.

food safety principles
1. Clean

Keeping things clean is a good principle to have in all facets of business, but especially when handling food that will be served to customers. A simpler task like handwashing may seem obvious and commonplace enough to almost go without saying. But there are many times when handwashing is overlooked or forgotten, and these instances can often be the difference between a safe and unsafe food environment.

To ensure a safe kitchen environment, any employee coming into contact with food needs to wash their hands constantly. Some instances in which handwashing can be overlooked include: after taking out the trash, cleaning a contaminated surface, blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, etc., and after coming back from a break (especially when that includes touching a cell phone).

“Considering how often we touch our phones, this may seem excessive…our phones are actually 10 times dirtier than a toilet seat, and you definitely wouldn’t touch food after touching one of those…”

“What is Food Safety?: the 4 principles you need to know”

In addition to frequent handwashing, surfaces and utensils need to be sanitized and properly cleaned after every use. Special attention should be paid when raw food is around and may have come into contact with kitchen utensils. 

You may be thinking, “…good to know, but my employees wear gloves in the kitchen”. Unless employees are replacing their gloves after every task, the same handwashing precautions need to be taken.

“…gloves create a false sense of cleanliness, which ultimately leads to gloves being used incorrectly and employees not washing their hands as well or often as they should.”

– Cleaner Solutions, “Handwashing vs. Gloves in Commercial Restaurants”

2. Separate

Cross-contamination is one of the most common causes of food safety issues. This principle is simple. Separate and sanitize anything that comes into contact with raw food – poultry, beef, fish, etc. It can be easy to overlook or skip this step as employees get busier and feel overwhelmed. In that moment, stopping everything to sanitize a prep area can seem like wasted time.

3. Cook & 4. Chill

While the principles above put emphasis on the importance of safety during the preparation and cooking of food, safety begins even before an order has been placed. To ensure that your food is safe from the start, temperature monitoring should be standard at every step.

From the minute the food deliveries are received, it becomes your responsibility to ensure that it is stored at a safe temperature.

Temperature monitoring is also important when cooking poultry, fish, and other meats. In order to confidently serve these foods, your employees need to ensure they are cooked to an appropriate temperature. Per the FDA’s recommendations, below are the standard safe cooking temperatures.

safe cooking temperature chart

To read about these four principles in more depth, look through “What is Food Safety: The 4 principles you need to know”

Food Safety Red Flags 

These basic food safety principles will help to prevent most issues. But safeguards can fail and in that case, the ability to quickly recognize food safety hazards is imperative. Unfortunately, contaminated food is nearly impossible to recognize just by looking at it. Getting familiar with the food safety red flags below can help.

food safety red flags
1. Broken packaging

Broken packaging is a red flag that can often go unnoticed, especially when dealing with inventory in large bulk. Even so, it’s important that employees are trained to look for any abnormalities in food packaging – from rips in plastic seals to deformed aluminum cans.

2. Unrefrigerated food

Having raw food out of a temperature-controlled environment is a breeding ground for bacteria growth and other contamination. Every employee preparing food in your restaurant should know how to properly store and defrost raw foods.

3. Sell and use-by dates

Use and sell-by dates are estimates provided by each supplier. Therefore, they are not hard-and-fast rules indicating that food is still safe vs not. However, the supplier has likely studied the food product and come to this estimation with some reasoning. 

So, although food past its use or sell-by date may still be safe to use, it’s always best to follow the guidelines these dates provide. If not, you may be leaving the decision up to your employees on a case-by-case basis- and without proper training to identify safe vs unsafe food, this could create a massive opportunity for error.

4. Discolored spots on meat, poultry, or produce

Although this tip seems simple, it’s actually not. It’s normal to assume that any meat which looks abnormal is. But, some meats can vary in tone and tint based on factors like the animal’s diet, or the type of cut you’re working with.

What should absolutely be considered abnormal is:

  • Any discoloration caused by mold or yeast growth (which should be visibly obvious)
  • Discoloration accompanied by an odd or pungent odor
  • A change in texture (sticky or slimy textures on meats that don’t seem right)

“With spoilage there can be a change in color – often a fading or darkening. In addition to the color change, the meat or poultry will have an off odor, be sticky or tacky to the touch, or it may be slimy.”


5. Abnormal odors

Speaking of abnormal odors, this is a tell-tale red flag of food safety. It’s not that safe meat necessarily smells good, but rotten meat smells bad. And when any food in your kitchen smells off or sour (when it’s not supposed to), it should be thrown out.

A piece of food that looks bad and smells bad, is definitely bad. No chances should be taken at this point.

To get more information on these red flags, read our blog post “5 Food Safety Tips and Red Flags”

Risks of a Passive Food Safety Strategy

Now that we’ve covered the food safety basics and gotten into some specific rules and methods, maybe you’re thinking, “This is all good to know, but it’s not something I need to prioritize or invest in right now – it won’t affect my bottom line.” Think again. Anything that affects your customers affects your bottom line.

In order to run a successful and lasting foodservice operation, food safety needs to be part of your fundamental strategy. If it’s anything but a priority, you open your business up to serious risks.Here are some of the biggest dangers to your business:

1. Losing customers and their trust

Bad customer experiences really only result in one of two outcomes – either you lose the customer or they continue to patronize but with heightened caution and constant mistrust of your operations.

If a customer eats in your establishment and becomes ill because of poor food safety practices, they may not return. They could also tell others they know to steer clear so they aren’t at risk of the same fate.

If you do find yourself in a situation where a customer has become ill, you will want a strong and transparent response to avoid losing business. You will need to show how and why it happened, and prove that you have processes in place to avoid it in the future.

2. Bad press

Even if you uncover that the food safety issue your store experienced was a fluke, and not reflective of your daily operations, the public won’t necessarily see it that way. 

“Consumers have long memories, and there is no such thing as an isolated incident anymore.”

Food Safety Tech

When your operations receive negative press, it will be hard to shake. And if your store is part of a larger franchise, you could be putting the entire organization at risk.

3. Failed inspections

Inspections are stressful enough, but especially so if you don’t feel confident in the integrity of your safety processes. Without appropriate documentation of safety practices, an inspector could decide to fine your establishment. Worst case scenario, they could choose to shut your store down completely until the safety issues have been addressed, affecting your business in the long-term.

4. Legal issues

When any mistake is made by your staff that affects a customer, there is always a chance that the customer could pursue legal action. If an incident gets this far, it’s important to note that the victim usually wins out. And with access to attorneys who specialize in food safety cases, you run the risk of paying a large price.

5. Increased insurance premiums

When you get into a car accident, your insurance premium is likely to increase. A general liability policy is not much different. Although this type of policy can protect you from severe food safety repercussions, you run the risk of having your premiums increased if an incident does occur.

These are just a few examples. See our more exhaustive list with more detail here: “Why Food Safety is Good Business”. None of these risks are worth taking. You already have enough to be stressed over. Let food safety be the one thing that brings you peace of mind.

Enter: Digital Food Safety

No, let’s get into the future of food safety practices, which is automation and compliance reliability, made possible by digital food safety.

What is it? We define it as “… the automation and digitization of food safety tasks from traditional and manual practices.” Tasks that were traditionally completed on pen and paper are loaded into software that your team can use to automate and better track compliance tasks.

Why does that matter? As we’ve outlined, food safety is essential, but it doesn’t have to take up a significant amount of time or resources. The digitization of these tasks helps to:

  • Reduce the number of employees needed to complete safety/compliance tasks
  • Cut down on time it takes to complete tasks
  • Simplify and expedite data gathering
  • Improve inspection performance

Those all sound like great promises for efficiency improvement, but let’s dive into what makes those improvements possible. The features of your digital food safety system are essential to understand. Having the right capabilities will make the difference between having a helpful resource and just another technology system to manage.

Having a system that works with accessories like remote temperature sensors and bluetooth pyrometers is imperative to time savings and worry-free compliance. Remote temperature monitoring will keep a 24/7 eye on your temperature-controlled environments to ensure they never fall out of a safe temperature range. Bluetooth pyrometers automate temperature logging to save your staff the hassle and time of manually recording temperature readings on paper.

We’ve explored digital checklists extensively in “Digital Checklists: The Ultimate Guide for Restaurants”, but it’s worth noting here as well. Digital checklists will be the backbone of any digital food safety software, as they allow for easy compilation and reporting on all tasks in the system.

Corrective actions are imperative for compliance, peace of mind, and transparency. The ability to see that incomplete or inaccurate tasks have been corrected ensure that your operations maintain consistently high quality.

Inspections become quick and pain-free with digital compliance and food safety dashboards. Preparing reports is no longer an hours-long task stitching together disconnected numbers from sheets of paper. Your reports are ready to go anytime you need them, and more accurate than ever.

Challenges You’ll Face Without a Digital Food Safety System

While there are many challenges that will arise if pen and paper continue to be the operational standard, most can be boiled down to a lack of transparency. Without real-time digital reporting on which tasks have and have not been completed at each location, you will never truly have an accurate understanding of your daily operations. 

This will show itself to challenges across the organization, but from the customer experience perspective more than any. Your store likely has a verbal or documented set of goals or standards which your services and products must meet. When part of a larger franchise, these are often called brand promises. It’s the idea that no matter what time of day or part of the world someone walks into your store, they will have the experience they have come to expect of your brand, your employees, and your food. 

How does food safety play into this? With real-time access to understand the progress of daily operational tasks like cleaning checklists, handwashing, etc. you can feel confident that customers are having the experience they’ve come to expect.

While an important one to point out, this is just one of many potential challenges. You can read up on the other obstacles in “Challenges Without a Digital Food Safety System”.

The foodservice industry’s focus has been set on front of house innovation for years- from new POS systems, mobile ordering, food delivery systems, etc. The tide is turning to innovation for back of house processes like food safety, and it will become a game-changer for operational efficiency. We hope this guide has helped to outline why this modernization is not only helpful but necessary for long-term success.

free food safety posters for restaurants