Public Health keeps airmen out of 'Danger Zone'

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jim Fuchs
  • 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affiars
Each week, Tech. Sgt. Marlon Muthuveeran puts the food service operation at the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing dining facility through a rigorous series of tests. He evaluates down to the minutest detail, everything from food storage temperatures to the concentration of the cleaning solution used to wash down countertops at this forward-deployed location in Southwest Asia supporting operations Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch.

And while the overall dining experience would probably not garner a 5-star restaurant rating back in the United States, when it comes to frequency of public health inspections, even restaurateurs at the nation's top gastronomic destinations would be envious.

"According to the (Food and Drug Administration's) Food Code, restaurants back in the United States are only required to have yearly public health inspections," said Muthuveeran, deployed from Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash. "In the Air Force, we always go above and beyond, so we inspect our facilities weekly and are very hard on self inspections."

Armed with an assortment of thermometers, chlorine test strips and a 400-page guide from the FDA, the 380th Expeditionary Medical Group's noncommissioned officer in charge of public health, sets out each week with one goal: to make sure nobody gets sick from eating at the facility.

"Our primary concern is with (Potentially Hazardous Foods)," explained Muthuveeran. "Any meat or protein foods need to stay out of the danger zone, which is (between) 40 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit."

After checking in with Tech. Sgt. Duane Bromley, the 380th Expeditionary Services Squadron dining facility manager, Muthuveeran starts his inspection with canned and dry goods in the facility's rear storage area. He mentally ticks off a checklist of common food service violations, looks for rodents (roaches are the most common problem in this region), makes sure storage bins are off the floor and on pallets, and ensures containers are sealed.

Moving to the refrigeration units, Muthuveeran makes sure cold foods are stored at or below the 'danger zone' temperature and leftovers are properly labeled with the time and date.

Leftovers, explained Bromley, have up to seven days to be used, but here they're generally consumed within 48 hours.

Shadowed by Bromley, who conducts three documented self-inspections of the facility daily, Muthuveeran weaves his way through a labyrinth of food service employees, evaluating personal hygiene standards (ensuring no jewelry, no watches, and ensuring that everyone is wearing a hairnet). After measuring the temperatures of the foods being served, he makes his way to the washroom - where he even tests the dishwashing machines to make sure dishes are being cleaned at temperatures of 160 degrees or higher to destroy any bacteria.

Muthuveeran credits the wing's relationship with the local catering service contractor for the expediency at which problems are fixed.

This relationship even transcends the boundary of the dining facility itself. Air Force Public Health officials do regular spot checks on the food, as it is transported to the base and conduct monthly inspections at the contractor's off-base warehouse to ensure they're adhering to the FDA code and Air Force standards.

"The most difficult part of inspections is when food is being brought in from off-base, which is a daily occurrence around here," said Muthuveeran. "The food is transported in refrigerated trucks but sometimes (Vehicle Search Area) inspections last longer than we expect. We've had to put the food under ice while it's inside the cooler to make sure we maintain the proper temperatures when the vehicles are being searched."

Despite the daily challenges the dining facility and public health inspectors face, the facility has received at least a satisfactory rating for every inspection Muthuveeran has conducted.

Everyone who cooks food on base must at a minimum sign off on a two-page training certification. They're also subject to spot checks from Muthuveeran.

"For the units, we're mostly there to remind them that all meat must be cooked until it's well done," he explained. "Poultry should be cooked to at least 165 degrees and pork should be cooked to at least 180 degrees to prevent Trichinosis. For the contractors, we're there to ensure standards are always being followed, and to help implement new guidelines."

Because U.S. Army public health officials are in charge of approving the sources of food for all bases in Southwest Asia, they frequently make food service policy changes and publish them on a secure Web site. These changes may indicate a change in primary vendor or new research regarding certain types of food.

When new guidance is given, Muthuveeran and Bromley make sure the dining facility is immediately compliant. And in the event that food cannot be transported on base, or new public health measures cannot be implemented satisfactorily, emergency procedures are also in place.

"We have a five-day supply of (Meals Ready-to-eat) for the whole base," said Bromley.

Muthuveeran regards the wing's relationship with the food service vendor as the primary reason he's never even had to consider such drastic measures.

"These guys do an outstanding job," he said. "We're unique in having a catering service versus a prime vendor. So they do most of the work for us and take care of most of the storage. They also understand we have to do more inspections here because this is our single source of food, and we must ensure the mission continues. It's a great relationship."