The surprisingly slack standards of food safety in Germany

In the U.S., food workers are required to wash their hands multiple times a shift.
In the U.S., food workers are required to wash their hands multiple times a shift. Photo: Kelly Thomas

For a country known for its bloated bureaucracy and strict regulations, Germany has comparatively lax food safety laws – at least in comparison to Washington state.

To get my Washington food worker’s card, I had to watch a little video online about various food-related rules and answer simple questions related to them afterwards.

In Germany, I showed up one evening at a repurposed furniture store, sat in a crowded room, and watched a video on an ill-fated food worker who got a bad case of food poisoning and had to stay home three days from work.

In Washington, I learned how to disinfect surfaces, dishes and my hands to prevent food-borne illnesses. I was given detailed instructions on proper hand-washing techniques and an extensive list of situations when it was required to change my gloves and wash my hands. Washing one’s hands for less than 30 seconds, or having a broken hand-washing sink, were both reasons for businesses to get marked down on their health reports.

In Germany I was instructed in proper hand-washing technique and told to wash my hands after using the restroom. I learned the unpleasant symptoms of a few different diseases that could arise from fecal contamination in food.

In Washington I learned the importance of “keep hot food hot and cold food cold,” and learned proper holding temperatures and storage techniques to minimize bacteria growth. I also learned about cross-contamination and allergens.

The German video had none of these things, but did go into detail about food-borne illness and what you should do if you think you have one. (Spoiler alert: Don’t go to work.)

The first time I came to Germany, I wasn’t expecting to see unrefrigerated milk and room-temperature eggs in grocery stores. I learned, however, that the room-temperature milk has been fully pasteurized and is shelf-stable, and that there’s a perfectly good reason why Americans refrigerate their eggs and Europeans don’t.

It surprised me to see room-temperature food sitting out in the university cafeterias in Germany and Denmark. At the catering service in Germany, I will sometimes go entire shifts without washing my hands, and I wipe down surfaces with plain water on a wash cloth instead of disinfection solution. But as nobody seems to be getting sick, I guess I can’t complain.

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