Food Safety Interview with Geoff Leubkemann

After 16 years in hospitality operations, Geoff entered public service, serving as top regulator for Florida’s food and lodging industry at the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR).

In 2006, Geoff joined the senior staff of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA), where he leads the association’s Education and Training Department. This statewide team executes FRLA’s training mission in food safety, alcohol beverage compliance, workforce development, and high-performance training.

He serves on food safety advisory councils for DBPR and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and is active in the Conference for Food Protection and other national food safety stakeholder groups.

Geoff holds a degree in Economics from the Florida State University and lives in the Tallahassee neighborhood where he grew up.


Q: Are you seeing new products or trends that may be helpful in achieving food safety in Florida’s restaurants?

A: I’m seeing more automation of routine or record keeping food safety tasks that free up time for people to carry out food production and other tasks that need the human touch. For instance, remote temperature monitoring equipment can be connected to logging databases and populate temperature data that usually requires attention from and recording by a person. This type of automation can also alert key staff when refrigeration equipment is underperforming, even during non-operating periods. Integration of POS alerts for allergen ingredients is another automation that builds more reliability into communicating food allergy information among service and production staff, better protecting at-risk guests.


Q: Food safety took a backseat to the global COVID-19 pandemic; can you explain to readers how this occurred?

A: In two phases, first in dealing with the onset and immediate impacts of the pandemic, and secondly when emerging from it to a post-pandemic operating environment; each created unique challenges.

At the onset, operators were overwhelmed with new sanitizing procedures, constantly evolving best practices and guidance from public and environmental health officials and meeting guests’ sanitation and safety expectations – whether grounded in science or not. As the operating environment stabilized from constant evolution to one better understood, our industry was confronted with the realities of short staffing and increased turnover, each amplified an already difficult operating environment, and all this contributed to the opportunity immense distraction from core food safety mission.

Operators that already had a strong commitment to and operating system for food safety excellence were not distracted and maintained their standards.


Q: What trends could disrupt food safety in Florida?

A: Continued high turnover and operating short-staffed are two formidable challenges to maximizing positive food safety operational impacts. There is so much involved in preparing a new employee, even an industry veteran, that operations leaders must be extra vigilant that their focus on food safety is not diminished. It can be done, and done well, but it takes a conscious and intentional effort to do so.

To a lesser extent, margin pressures could tempt some operators to make decisions that compromise their effective execution of food safety best practices. Again, a strong commitment to a culture of food safety will safeguard the operation and ensure that shortcuts aren’t taken.


Q: What is the status of the hepatitis-A outbreak that was occurring in Florida prior to the pandemic.

A: While the multi-year spike in hepatitis-A appears to be relenting, operators’ constant vigilance for employee illness symptoms – every shift, every day – will go a long way to protecting guests, staff, and businesses. Ensuring food employees do not work sick and that proper and frequent handwashing are consistently executed are excellent front-line tools in reducing hep-A risk. The most recent hepatitis-A tracking data is available from the Florida Department of Health here, and its incidence appears to be diminishing.


Q: Are employee hygiene and handwashing still a huge part of keeping food safe?

A: These are two of the most effective food safety tools operators can use to reduce foodborne illness risk factors. An intentional system of adherence to regulatory requirements, Food Code standards, and operating best practices is the foundation of active managerial control. Managers that actively engage their teams – every shift, every day – will ensure proper and frequent handwashing and that ill employees do not enter the food preparation environment. These best practices coupled with highly engaged managers are proven effective interventions that reduce food safety risk.


Q: Florida has a strong food safety regulatory framework – can you briefly describe this?

A: In addition to being based on the latest nationally developed, science-based food safety standards, Florida’s food safety regulatory system is based on business type, rather than geography. This is a departure from the rest of the U.S., where the “health inspector” is typically a local government employee operating in certain city or county. These people may have responsibility for a broad array of environmental health inspections, from childcare facilities and hospitals or corrections facilities to well water and septic tanks to restaurants. Each of these is a complex system with its own best practices and regulatory standards. In Florida, our primary inspectors, from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation Division of Hotels and Restaurants, are responsible for inspecting only food service and lodging operations. This narrows the scope of laws, rules, and regulations inspectors must master, allowing them to become truly expert in observing and requiring correction for the sanitation and safety standards applied to our industry.


Q: How does training play a role in the food safety of Florida’s restaurants?

A: This is a great question, and the answer is rooted equally in industrial psychology and food science. In creating an operational culture of food safety, our holy grail is fostering behavior change. That is, getting our teams to do the right thing when no one is watching. One of the strongest influencers on this is arming our teams with the “WHY” of food safety, not just ordering them to do things a certain way because we said so. When a prep or line cook understands that their behavior coupled with food safety best practices can prevent putting a child in the hospital, they may be more apt to execute those best practices. Educating and rewarding our teams on food safety is the best defense for our guests.


Q: Can you describe what mandated food safety training in Florida is, and what the requirements for compliance are?

A: Mandatory food safety training simply means a food service licensee must provide approved food safety training to their employees, and Food Protection Manager Certification (FRLA uses ServSafe®) for managers. These are just the minimums, which a DBPR inspector will check for. There is actually a spectrum of food safety execution, from simple compliance to creating a “culture of food safety.” There is a minimum and a gold standard, and each operator gets to choose what they do. As an operator, imagine the conversation you would have with the family of someone you put in the hospital – or their attorney – and the choice is really easy.


Q: Do you have any food safety tips to share with readers?

A:  An excellent tool for owners or multi-unit leaders that may not be onsite daily is the operation’s DBPR inspection history. These are posted online immediately upon completion and are publicly available. It’s a good idea to know what your guests are seeing in your inspection reports, and it makes a great staff meeting or training tool. These are available on the DBPR website, and also accessible on mobile devices by downloading the DBPR Mobile app from Google Play Store for Android and the Apple App Store for iOS.

Highly effective operational food safety is not particularly complex but does require intentional, consistent commitment. Developing an active managerial control system and holding everyone in the operation from leadership to the newest prep cook or dishwasher accountable is the key to managing risk and safeguarding guests. I occasionally speak to operators that feel targeted or picked on by an inspector. I usually start those conversations with “Why was the inspector the first person to notice this?”