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Dining, Disease and Disaster: University Center worker concerned about cross-contamination due to mishandling of meat

<p class="p1"><span class="s1">A piece of chicken is left sitting on a rack where ice buckets are stored. Such practices are considered a violation of OSHA regulations.</span></p>
A piece of chicken is left sitting on a rack where ice buckets are stored. Such practices are considered a violation of OSHA regulations.

A University of Memphis worker within the University Center has accused the campus Chick-fil-A of unsanitary and health-code breaking practices.

John, who asked The Daily Helmsman not to use his real name, said many of the issues present carried over from Aramark before the transition to Chartwells during the fall semester, and many of these issues remain unresolved.

“The things that actually concerned me overall were three instances,” John said. “One where I found raw chicken on a storage shelf used to store ice buckets and scoops for ice buckets. There was another instance where I saw somebody using a french fry fryer to cook bacon … There was an incident where knives were being stored on a magnetic stripe, and some of the knives weren’t clean, and they were largely use for cutting vegetables. They were unlabeled and largely identical, and you could only identify what they did by the pieces stuck on them.”

In his first claim, John thought about the most likely scenario for how the ice buckets could have been contaminated.

“We have large carts that are used for a lot of things, and all of the carts are used for all of the things such as taking trash from one place to another, moving the ice buckets, moving food to where it belongs,” John said. “So what I believe happened was somebody put a case with raw chicken on one of the carts, … and eventually, at some point in the day, the cart was not cleaned, and somebody put ice buckets on it, filled up the ice buckets, didn’t notice that there was chicken on the bottom of it, and went to go put the ice buckets back on the shelf.”

In the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) laws and regulations, all food service facilities must use “sound hygienic principals” and be handled “in a manner as to be protected against contamination,” meaning raw meats and vegetables must not ever come into direct or indirect contact, as foodborne diseases may spread.

Pratik Banerjee, a professor of epidemiology, biostatistics and environmental health at the University of Memphis , said there would hypothetically be a “considerable” risk of cross-contamination of the ice inside of the ice buckets, but emphasized he has no direct knowledge of the situation at Chick-fil-A.

“That’s an unhygienic practice — I can definitely say that,” Banerjee said. “If you are carrying trash, there’s always a chance of some leakage or some puncture in the bag or something like that, so the cart essentially is not a clean cart.”

To John, the lack of carts seems to be a symptom of a larger problem — the compact kitchen area. While not impossible to move around in, many fast food kitchens have in place the McDonald’s “Speedee Service System,” where workers are confined to one workstation in a human-conveyor belt workflow.

“Besides the main kitchen for catering events, all of the kitchens are very cramped, and — I wouldn’t say dangerous to maneuver in, but it is very close quarters, so the fact that the carts are used everywhere isn’t really that surprising because if there were more, it would probably be clogging up everything,” John said.

Over the summer when Chartwells signed an agreement with the UofM, they promised to make the Chick-fil-A offer a full-service menu. John said while there are more items on the menu, they do not have the means to prepare them and cannot expand the physical size of the Chick-fil-A due to the building itself. Under Aramark and Chartwells’  food service for the UofM, John said safety equipment like cutting gloves were rare or unavailable despite the use of knives mandating such equipment.

Banerjee said indirect contact with surfaces like a magnetic strip could be at risk of cross-contamination if clean utensils were used on vegetables.

“The problem with the vegetables is they are often used in a salad, and there is not much cooking,” Banerjee said. “What happens is you are actually transferring microorganisms, which are supposed to be killed in the cooking process to a food not meant to be cooked, so it’s going to be consumed as-is, potentially with harmful organisms.”

While Banerjee said there was not a significant risk of cross-contamination by frying products in all already used to fry bacon, some religions, as well as vegans, may be offended by the practice. Shaul Bar, director of Jewish studies at the UofM, said while a situation similar to this would make some people break dietary practices, many Jewish groups do not take that specific mandate in the Torah seriously. Tasneem Hassouneh, a biomedical engineering student at the UofM, said while it would be breaking religious dietary standards to eat fries cooked in oil used for bacon, she would not be at fault unless she knew about the practice of a business that did that.

“Say if Burger King did that and I know that Burger King does that, yet I still go there and I still order it, religiously that would be wrong on my part, but if I didn’t know that’s what’s happening and it’s not common knowledge, religiously I can’t be held accountable for it because I did not know, Hassouneh said.

In response to a question from The Daily Helmsman, Chartwells said healthy and safety of customers is their top priority and affirmed they train each employee extensively upon hire and throughout employment. Chartwells also said to contact Resident District Manager Glendel Coble to express concerns or offer feedback.

“We take any reports that do not align with our safety protocols very seriously and are actively investigating the claims brought forth to us by The Daily Helmsman,” the statement said.

When reached out for comment by The Daily Helmsman, the University of Memphis is committed to keeping food industry safety standards.

“We will partner with our dining services team, who will investigate this matter, and take appropriate corrective actions if warranted,” the statement said.

John said many of these issues are leftovers from Aramark, which would not fix anything unless ignoring the issues costed them money.

“One thing that if you were standing in line you would notice is that Chick-fil-A ran out of diet lemonade permanently because it didn’t make money, and that half of the machine was broken,” John said. “As soon as something that didn’t make money broke, it wasn’t worth fixing.”

John said Aramark had worse cross-contamination, such as chicken defrosting in a vegetable sink. He also said Aramark did not provide eyewash stations, which are mandatory under OSHA regulations and have been fixed with temporary installations by Chartwells.

“They [Chartwells] were unprepared to come in because of the bad problems that Aramark had put them into,” John said. “There were all kinds of broken machinery that they replaced.”

John said that Aramark might be to blame for most of the problems in the UC directly, but Chartwells still has some work to do to rectify the problem. Aramark has not responded to these allegations.

“Aramark left them [Chartwells] in a very bad position, and Aramark did some very bad things,” John said. “Chartwells is improving, but there are still problems.”

A piece of chicken is left sitting on a rack where ice buckets are stored. Such practices are considered a violation of OSHA regulations.

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