For most tertiary businesses such as catering, the actual food encounter starts from the gate (receiving) to the plate (service). As food passes through the various stages, it is exposed to various hazards or contaminants namely:
Physical hazards such as stones, hair, broken glass, etc. generally causing injury, discomfort or a psychological trauma
Chemical hazards such as cleaning chemicals, pesticides, etc. causing food poisoning or chronic illnesses
Microbiological hazards such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, etc. causing infections or food poisoning (mainly from toxins of bacteria and fungi)
Allergenic hazards such as wheat, nuts, peanuts, milk, etc. causing food allergies. Some of these foods can also cause intolerances.
The most important and the most common of all are the microbiological hazards especially in food products which enhance the growth of microbes due to their high protein or carbohydrate content, high moisture and low acid.
Food hygiene systems designed to ensure safe food must consider the food type and the significant hazard types. In any case, they are based on the three pillars as described below and a special emphasis has been given to microbiological hazard prevention
- Prevention of contamination
Pathogens ( harmful microorganisms) that originate from humans ( feces/ saliva/skin), raw food, pests, soil, garbage, etc. find their way into the ready to eat (RTE) food by a process called cross contamination. Common objects like our hands, clothes, food and hand contact surfaces facilitate the microbial transfer and render the RTE food potentially unsafe. Hence safe practices include:
- Approving food and packaging material suppliers and defining the ingredient specifications for the recipes, especially for raw RTE food / ingredients since there is no cooking or a pathogen kill step. Examples include the use of pasteurized eggs for raw egg dishes like mayonnaise or tiramisu; garnishing with disinfected herbs/fruits or sterilized / roasted spices; use of sushi-grade frozen fish for sashimi, etc.
- Replacing cloth towels with disposable paper towels especially in RTE food handling areas.
- Emphasizing thorough cleaning (physical removal of dirt/grease) in all areas and disinfection for the food/hand contact surfaces, as necessary to kill pathogens to safe levels. Thorough cleaning of premises and regular waste removal also discourages pests.
- Prohibiting sick food handlers from handling food, especially those having symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting, fever, septic cuts/boils on hand, flu, etc.
- Emphasize handwashing with liquid soap and running water followed by hand drying preferably with a paper towel, especially after using the toilet, on entering a food room and before starting work, after handling raw food and before handling RTE food.
- Separating raw and RTE food including preparation areas and use of colour coded equipment. Use different storage units or different areas or follow a storage hierarchy in the descending order ( RTE-cooked->RTE-raw->fruits / veg -> fish->meat->poultry
- Covering food, especially the RTE food and single use packaging / food contact materials.
- Treat water and ice as a food – do not pick ice with your fingers.
- Prevention of microbial growth ( cell multiplication / toxins / spore growth )
- Never store foods in the temperature danger zone as defined by regulations, e.g. ( 5℃-60℃).
- Follow the local government regulations - cool hot food quickly through the danger zone to prevent bacteria growth and germination of spores ( hardy forms of bacteria with a protective covering that survive cooking), discard food in the danger zone above two hours; prepare small batches of food, etc.
- Store dry foods in a cool and dry condition to prevent the growth of toxic mould.
- Never consume food after the use by date or expiry. Most pathogens do not make the food smell, feel, look or taste bad.
- Survival of pathogens
- Cook and/or reheat the food thoroughly above 75℃ / suitable time temperature equivalent in the thickest part and check with a probe thermometer. Visual indicators include juices running clear in meat, poultry and fish; firmly cooked eggs; bubbling of liquid foods when stirred
- Disinfect raw RTE fruits and vegetables after thorough rinsing with water – ensure correct concentration and contact time of the disinfectant.
- Do not consume food from blown cans or packs since this is the only control.
Food safety leadership is the key and must emphasize on food handler training and awareness of food hygiene principles, food safety implementation, effective supervision and timely communication. Not to forget, a food safety culture is a reality when each one involved feels accountable to protect the most valuable asset, namely human life.
About the author
Nina Da Costa, currently the Diversey Consulting Manager- MENA is responsible for design and execution of all technical issues across the MENA region relating to food safety, health & safety, infection prevention, environment, quality and efficiency management.
Nina is a Graduate in Microbiology / Biochemistry, with a Postgraduate Diploma in Environmental Pollution Control Technology and a NEBOSH International Diploma in Occupational Health & Safety Management Systems. She is an ex-TUV Suddeutschland Lead Auditor in HACCP / ISO 9000 / ISO 14000 / OHSAS 18000. Her diverse experience of over 20 years has been in the above related fields across India, Indian sub-continent, Middle East and Africa.
At Diversey Consulting, Nina and her team of experienced consultants, auditors and trainers are committed towards mentoring businesses towards health, safety, excellence, sustainability and profitability.