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What is a Risk Factor? Hint: There are 5!

Thermometer showing the safe temperature for food safetyWhen talking about food safety, the most important topic is the prevention of foodborne illness—Job #1 in any restaurant is to prevent foodborne illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are five risk factors that lead to foodborne illness in a restaurant. The CDC reached this conclusion by analyzing the causes of foodborne illness outbreaks over a period of years. To reduce the occurrence of foodborne illness, food safety training that includes steps on reducing the five risk factors must be provided to restaurant employees.
  1. Unsafe Food Source: Buy food from safe sources. All foods that are prepared for sale to the public must be bought from a safe, regulated source, such as local grocery stores or permitted distributors. Foods may not be prepared at home.
  2. Time and Temperature Abuse: Potentially hazardous food must be temperature controlled to prevent foodborne illness. When food is not kept at the right temperature, either hot or cold, this is referred to as “time and temperature abuse.” Hot holding, cold holding, cooling, thawing and reheating can all lead to time and temperature abuse if done incorrectly. It is important to train employees about the “danger zone” temperatures between 41°F and 135°F. The longer food is in the “danger zone,” the more chance bacteria can grow and foodborne illness can result.
  3. Inadequate Cook Temperature: An inadequate cook temperature can also lead to foodborne illness. Cook to the proper temperature to kill the bacteria in raw foods. Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods. Do not judge doneness by how the food looks!
  4. Contaminated Equipment: The fourth risk factor is contaminated equipment. Keeping equipment clean and safe from cross-contamination is a never-ending challenge in food establishments. Do not use the same cutting board for raw chicken and vegetables. Do wash, rinse and sanitize all prep equipment between uses. Change gloves when going from one task to another.
  5. Poor Personal Hygiene: Good personal hygiene includes wearing clean clothes/aprons, keeping fingernails trimmed, wearing hats or hair nets to cover hair, and washing hands often! Hands can be a source of contamination leading to foodborne illness. Handling ready-to-eat foods with bare hands is a sure way to pass on a foodborne illness if an employee is ill. Handwashing is the most important thing you can do to prevent the spread of germs which can lead to foodborne illness. Employees should wash their hands after using the restroom; before and after preparing food; after handling raw meat and poultry; after handling unclean utensils or equipment; when changing gloves; when changing tasks; after eating and drinking; and after smoking.

Many Health Department inspections are risk factor assessments. During these inspections, the inspector reviews the methods the food establishment uses to reduce the occurrence of risk factors. Inspectors take temperatures of hot and cold foods and evaluate cook temperatures. Inspectors also observe whether employees are washing their hands when they should. Cleaning and sanitizing procedures are observed, as well. If necessary, your inspector may give guidance on how to reduce the occurrence of the risk factors in your establishment. By taking the necessary steps, a restaurant can reduce the likelihood of a foodborne illness outbreak and keep the customer truly satisfied at the same time! For more information on food safety in food service establishments, visit

Read more in the full edition of the July 2014 newsletter. | Español PDF icon

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