Proactivity equals prevention

Proactivity equals prevention

Keeping a finger on the pulse of food safety by Jason Webb, managing director, Electronic Temperature Instruments

The slightest error on food safety in on-site campus catering operations could have dramatic human and financial consequences. Small but significant measures can greatly increase a campus’s ability to foresee and prevent a catering disaster. In a catering business, contamination may occur due to inadequate and improper storage, chilling, defrosting, cooking, and reheating of food. Poor practices provide optimal conditions for harmful pathogens to grow and contaminate a kitchen.

All catering businesses will be inspected as part of the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS). If a caterer has poor food safety and hygiene standards, its food hygiene rating score is likely to be lower. According to an NFU Mutual Food Hygiene Report, 69 per cent of people check the food hygiene ratings of the establishments they use, and customers would turn away from a 3-star rated business. In a campus setting such as an elementary school, a low hygiene rating could mean a permanent loss of parental trust in the establishment, jeopardising the future of the school.

Common mistakes

A common but dangerous mistake which risks harm is the overpacking of refrigeration units. This may initially seem like a viable option for a restaurant with several refrigeration units and which is looking to reduce its energy consumption by overpacking units and turning off others. However, there are dangers to this. Overfilling refrigerators and cool rooms with produce reduces the air flow and leads to hot spots, where bacteria can flourish even if you think you have the right temperature set on the dial. To combat this, caterers should keep an inventory of how much their stock needs to be refrigerated and use the latest technology to check temperature recordings every few hours.

Ensuring worker-hygiene is being kept to a high standard is a worthy point to reinstate. During the first six months of the Covid pandemic, the extra hygienic measures taken by catering operations, led to stomach bug outbreaks being cut by half. Simple measures such as installing a hand-wash timer in your sinks could make the difference.

If workers are ill, it can compromise food safety. Business owners and employers have a legal responsibility to ensure that staff (including themselves) do not handle food if they have an infection. It also applies if they show any symptoms of food poisoning, e.g. vomiting and diarrhoea, and have any infected wounds, skin infections or sores. Any cuts and sores should be covered with brightly coloured waterproof plasters or dressings, even if they are not infected.

Another hazard is chemical cross-contamination. In a catering business, mistakes such as storing or spraying cleaning products near food and preparing food on surfaces where chemicals have been could lead to immediate and consequential hazard to customers. Staff who have access to these chemicals should be trained adequately on the dangers of cross-contamination.

Temperature matters

It is crucial that campuses remain cautious of the pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses. These are sensitive to temperature. A typical commercial refrigerator uses 70 kWh per day, which amounts to 41 per cent of electricity consumption across all key appliances within a catering service. The prospect of reducing energy costs via refrigeration may seem an attractive option to some but cutting costs in this area could lead to severe consequences. Foods kept a few degrees above the safe threshold, can allow for the proliferation of harmful bacteria and parasites. A professor of Epidemiology at Tufts University has even linked global warming to increased food-related illnesses, illustrating how small variations can make big differences.

It is a legal requirement for businesses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to store cold foods at 8˚C or below. The UK’s Food Standards Agency recommends that fridges are set at 5˚C. Your refrigeration units must be kept at this temperature unless all food is removed. Keeping foods at higher temperatures accelerates the build-up of harmful bacteria, such as e-coli and listeria, which can make people sick or even cause death in extreme cases.

Some catering businesses may provide chilled food for self-serving, e.g. buffets, or deliver it to events. Before putting any food into chilled units, they must be at the correct temperature before use, i.e. set at 5°C or below. The temperature should be checked at least once a day (using a clean probe between chilled food).

When delivering chilled foods, it is best to use a cool box with a thermometer inside to monitor the temperature. Cold foods should be held below 8°C, but ideally between 0-5°C. They can be held above 8°C for up to four hours, but only once.

Proactivity = Prevention

Catering organisations should introduce proactive steps to keep people safe and their locations free from health & safety dangers. If your food travels long distances, the risk of it spoiling can be mitigated by leveraging real-time solutions such as wireless data loggers, which track your product's temperature throughout the delivery process. These loggers can be set up to send alerts when the food reaches dangerous temperatures, allowing for preventative measures to be taken. This logger data can also serve as reliable evidence if your delivery was mishandled by your supplier. Using a temperature logger means keeping a finger on the pulse of your food’s safety.

Monitoring both air and core temperature in refrigeration units allows organisations to install early alert systems that ensures you stay one step ahead. What’s more, overfilled fridges consume more energy. To counter against this strain, caterers should utilise technological devices to measure and record temperature readings on a regular basis.

Managing cost efficiencies through foreseeing demand fluctuations and adapting stock accordingly should be prioritised, as opposed to reducing the cost of refrigeration. The consequences of mismanaged refrigeration can be severe, with instances of food poisoning and hygiene standards violations well-documented in the hyper-connected era we live in.

Cutting corners on refrigeration may seem tempting, but it can cost you time, as well as negatively impact your reputation and your overall fiscal performance. However, simple proactive measures to keep a finger on the pulse of your catering operation’s health and safety means staying ahead of potential dangers.

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