Keeping your food safe through the warmer months.
Food safety expert Jenny Morris gives her two cents on how you can keep food safe in warmer climates this summer.
1,000,000 cases of food poisoning every year
Summer time and the living is easy. Or at least that’s what the Gershwin song said (if you are interested in old style musicals). But for many food businesses it means even more hard work. Hopefully it’s because good weather has brought more customers out. But when things start to heat up it’s important to think about what this means for food safety, particularly if you work outdoors in mobile or temporary outlets.
According to the Food Standards Agency there are around 1 million cases of food poisoning every year. And the number increases in the summer, particularly for cases of E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella. When I was working as an EHO, there was a large food poisoning outbreak one summer. It happened at a community event and was linked to barbecued chicken. The person in charge was not a professional caterer and knew a little about food safety. So, to make sure that the chicken was thoroughly cooked she par cooked the portions at home and brought them to the site in the back of her car (where they warmed up nicely in their black bags in the sun.) Then, the portions were quickly “flash cooked” on the barbecue – and later those who ate the chicken became ill.
For me the learning from that incident is that “a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing”. So proper training in food hygiene is essential. And if you take on new staff in anticipation of increased summer trade, training should be an urgent priority. To a professional caterer the mistakes made in cooking the chicken will be well understood but sometimes there are some less obvious hazards that pop up when the sun shines. The food safety basics – “the 4 C’s” – remain the focus of the safety controls but some adjustments may be needed. So, let’s look at them in turn.
1. Cooking - It may well be that the menu changes as summer comes. This may involve different foods and different cooking methods e.g. barbecuing. Clearly this will require a food safety management review to make sure food is safe. Alongside this will be the need to update your allergen assessment and management. In reality this is no different to any menu change during the year.
2. Chilling and cold holding - This is the area where the greatest problems may occur. For example, refrigeration equipment may struggle to hold temperature. So as things heat up it’s worth increasing temperature checks to make sure everything is all right. If refrigeration temperatures are too high, it’s also worth checking the thermostat is at the lowest possible temperature and seeing if the equipment can be relocated to a cooler area where there is good air circulation around the motor. If that doesn’t work, then food may be kept at room temperature for a period of no more than 4 hours. It’s up to the food business operator to have a system to show that this time exemption has not been misused e.g. by use of coloured dots marked with the discard time. The time exemption is based on the speed of bacterial multiplication and you should recall that bacteria can double in number in around 20 minutes. Generally, they will grow faster when the temperature is at its optimum (around 37oC). A large number of bacteria on food is always a problem and don’t forget some, such as E coli, can make people ill even when only a few are present. So, staying within the temperature exemption time limit doesn’t mean that the food is safe. Remember, if people become ill it’s your problem, whether or not you kept within the 4-hour rule. Good temperature control is essential, and to a large extent, refrigeration temperature will depend on the quality and suitability of the equipment, as well as regular maintenance and avoiding overloading. So, spend time on “research” when you buy refrigeration. For example, though they can look good and make customer access easy, open-fronted storage cabinets really struggle to hold temperature when it’s hot. Cabinets with doors will be a better investment. Even with good cabinets the temperature will rise quickly when the doors are open. So, make sure no-one leaves them open for longer than necessary. And to build in a margin of error, you might want to set the critical limit for refrigeration temperature at 5oC.
3. Cleaning - Good standards of cleaning are a fundamental requirement for food safety, whenever and wherever you are operating. So regularly reminding staff about the importance of following the cleaning rules, particularly around disinfection contact times, is often worthwhile. Even if surfaces look clean, there may still be bacteria present. Some caterers like to check how well cleaning has been done by testing with swabs that change colour depending on surface contamination levels. These can be a good training aid and a low-cost way of testing that the cleaning system is rigorous. This can be especially important if the operating environment has the potential to increase dirt and contamination e.g. a greenfield site where a marquee is used for food preparation and service or a street market where dust and pollution can be a hazard.
4. Avoiding cross contamination - Avoiding bacterial cross contamination in food storage, preparation, cooking and service will be an essential part of a food safety management system and must also underpin effective allergen management. The food safety management system should deal with change at any time of the year. Remember, the potential for contamination can increase, not only as a result of site change, but also because of pest problems, particularly the presence of flying insects. In summer the natural UV levels from the sun can be high and this can make UV fly killers of little use. So, it can be worth looking into fly screening as an alternative. Good housekeeping and, in particular, good waste control (especially the use of lidded bins) will also help to reduce the presence of flying insects.
I hope I’ve given you some useful pointers there and I wish you a safe and productive summer. Hope the sun shines! But being Britain, we may have rain and with that can come mud, as Glastonbury often shows. Mud can be a major issue, particularly in spreading contamination. Being prepared is essential e.g. by introducing clean foot wear policies (i.e. boots outside and clean safe shoes inside). Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that but “be prepared” is always a good motto. Good luck!
Who is Jenny Morris?
Jenny Morris’s career spans outside catering, a restaurateur, microbiologist and an Environmental Health Officer, before working as Head of Policy for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. Her experience includes advising the London Organising Committee (LOCOG) on food safety at the events for the London Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012, for which she received an MBE from the Queen. Jenny recently joined NCASS as an advisor to the board on strategy and food safety, and we’re delighted to be working with her!