September is National Food Safety Month. While many of the month's conversations and tips will revolve around topics like personal hygiene or allergen management, operating a commercial kitchen that serves safe food also depends on proper maintenance, service and use of foodservice equipment.

Donny Smith is a service manager with Commercial Parts and Service, which is based in Cincinnati and services equipment throughout Ohio, Eastern Indiana and Northern Kentucky. According to Smith, foodservice operators can take several steps to ensure their equipment supports food safety.

Doors are a major source of potential problems operators can watch out for, said Smith. A loose hinge or bad door gasket can prevent cooking equipment from reaching and maintaining its desired temperature, which can result in undercooked and potentially dangerous food. Similarly, refrigerator doors that don't close properly may lead to food being stored at unsafe temperatures. Operators who encounter a loose hinge or bad gasket should contact a service agent for repairs.

How staff clean foodservice equipment also impacts food safety, Smith said. One common mistake operators make is hosing down equipment. This step can have a devastating effect on a piece of foodservice equipment by destroying electronic components. It can also damage gas-fired equipment — a fact that's not so well known. Water can damage or destroy gas valves. If such a valve functions poorly, it can impact a unit's ability to reach and maintain temperature.

Similarly, poorly cleaned equipment can lower cooking temperatures, said Smith. If a fryer's flue hasn't been properly cleaned, soot can build up on the outside of the cooking pot. This can limit the amount of heat that reaches the pot itself, impacting both heat up and recovery times and once again setting up a situation where food is undercooked.

When cleaning equipment, operators must be sure to use the proper chemicals, Smith noted, since they can also effect food safety. One example he gave involves ice machines. "For some ice machines you're required to use a nickel-safe cleaner and others you aren't. You have to be very careful," Smith said. Not using a nickel-safe cleaner when one is needed "can corrode the unit itself, or even break down some components in the machine, including the storage bin." Such corrosion could cause ice to contact parts of the unit not made for storage and even end up exposing ice to chemicals.

While operators can help ensure food safety with basic equipment cleaning and monitoring, some tasks that only a service agency should perform. Among these are complex cleaning jobs such as descaling and deliming a steamer, which requires proper training to effectively accomplish this. The same applies to the deep cleaning of refrigeration components.

Operators should also call on their service agents to properly calibrate their equipment. If a gas unit's pilot light is set and angled improperly, for example, it may lead to incomplete gas combustion, Smith said. This raises obvious problems related to cooking food to temperature, not to mention energy use and basic kitchen safety.

Last, but certainly not least, service agents are needed to check the accuracy and proper functioning of temperature probes, thermometers and temperature displays. An oven that isn't cooking at the right temperature, a probe that gives inaccurate readings, a thermometer that is off by even just a few degrees — these sorts of problems can easily lead to food that is stored at unsafe temperatures or not thoroughly cooked.

As these examples show, while hand washing is important, it's only one part of a larger effort to ensure food safety. Thorough, proper equipment cleaning, proper calibration and regular service — all of these steps are essential to maintaining a food-safe kitchen.