Food hygiene - no room for complacency

19th of November 2015
Food hygiene - no room for complacency
Food hygiene - no room for complacency

Although the number of cases of foodborne illnesses across the EU has been decreasing steadily in recent years according to latest figures, there is still much work to be done. All businesses involved in preparing and serving food must have a proactive approach to food safety and hygiene in order to prevent problems before they occur.

The European Food Safety Authority and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control analysed information submitted by 27 European Union member states on the occurrence of zoonoses and foodborne outbreaks in 2012. Zoonoses are infections and diseases that are naturally transmissible, directly or indirectly - for example via contaminated foodstuffs - between animals and humans.

The most commonly reported zoonosis continues to be Campylobacteriosis, with 214,258 confirmed human cases. There has been a significant decreasing trend in Salmonellosis since 2008, with 2012 rates seeing a decrease of 4.7 per cent over 2011 and 32 per cent compared to 2008 – there were 91,034 cases in 2012. The report notes this postive progress is “mainly a result of the successful Salmonella control programs in poultry populations. Most Member States met their Salmonella reduction targets for poultry, and Salmonella is declining in these animal populations”.

On the increase, however is listeriosis at 1,642 cases. While the case rate seems low compared to other pathogens, a high fatality rate (17.8 per cent) was reported among the EU cases. Rates of verocytoxigenic Escherichia coli decreased by a significant 40 per cent over 2011 at 5,671, after increasing since 2008.

While progress is clearly being made, efforts must continue in reducing pathogens in foods in order to reduce the health impact on consumers. The global movement of food and people makes this especially important.

Improper cleaning and sanitisation of food service equipment, surfaces and utensils are a significant factor in the food production process. Microorganisms or allergens are frequently transferred directly onto food or surfaces during the food preparation, serving and storage cycle. Poor hand washing, failure to clean and sanitise a cutting board between uses, or using the same preparation table with raw and cooked foods are all examples of how easy it is to move bacteria around the kitchen and create dangerous food safety risks.

Marc Hurst of Enviro Health in the UK specialises in helping restaurant and hotel operators to maintain a spotless record in instances of foodborne illness. As an expert consultant in professional kitchen hygiene he has worked for some of the world’s largest hotel chains and tour operators.

Rapid intervention

“Being proactive is key,” he emphasises. “Preventing outbreaks before they happen is what every business should be seeking to do. In the past many were not so thorough in inspecting kitchens for cleanliness and hygiene compliance but I’m glad to say that has changed significantly. It just simply does not make sense anymore to react to issues as they occur.”

Poor kitchen hygiene in hotels, restaurants, etc has a number of impacts. First and foremost, the impact on the individual. Here, Hurst says, published statistics are a “drop in the ocean” because cases are simply not widely reported. “Illness is the consequence,” Hurst explains. “Diarrhoea and vomiting, fever, stomach pains, nausea. And all the implications that brings – time off work, inconvenience, suffering, etc. And for the more vulnerable groups in society, such as the very old, the very young and pregnant women, the implications can be much more serious. In the most severe cases, death.”

“So that means the quicker you can get to the source of an outbreak if one does happen, the better. Because you may be able to prevent further cases.”

Then there is the impact on businesses that have food poisoning cases as a result of poor hygiene. “If that news makes the national, or even local, media, it can be potentially devastating,” Hurst says. “It is possible for the authorities to close restaurants down for hygiene offences and even when they open again, word has spread about the problems and business may never return to normal.

“Restaurant owners can also be banned from ever running a food business again.”

The other factor increasingly coming into play is the compensation culture, which is particularly prevalent in the UK. “In today’s world so many people try to claim compensation if they think they have contracted food poisoning at a particular restaurant, for example, and that can hit businesses very hard,” Hurst explains.

All these factors combined make it essential for any business serving and preparing food to take a proactive approach towards hygiene, and to ensure their staff are properly trained in the correct procedures.

Varying standards

Standards do still vary somewhat around the countries of Europe in Hurst’s experience. “I believe the UK is one of the best in Europe when it comes to food hygiene,” he says, “because the authorities are extremely good at enforcing laws there.

“Spain and Turkey in particular have improved immeasurably in recent years,” he adds. “Often tourists travelling there in the past would almost expect to contract some kind of stomach bug, now it’s increasingly rare.”

Hurst is commissioned by companies across the globe to advise and educate on kitchen hygiene standards. So how does he work when he visits a kitchen? “The first thing I do is wash my hands. By doing that I can tell if the staff’s hands are being washed – if the water runs hot immediately I know the tap has been used recently.

“Then I work through the kitchen looking for signs of any pests, checking the cleaning of floors, cleaning under cookers, equipment, utensils, etc. Cleanliness of the fridge, storage of food, use-by dates on food, ventilation and grease filter cleaning, the state of hand washbasins.”

Kitchen staff

Hurst then turns his attention to the kitchen staff. “I observe their clothing, their behaviour. I ask to see their sanitisers, for example, the ones they use to clean surfaces. I question them about contact times, etc and ask them some more detailed questions about their cleaning procedures, food handling techniques, prevention of cross-contamination etc.”

To judge exactly how good the cleaning really is Hurst often goes down on his hands and knees to check underneath appliances in the kitchen. “Where I often find shortfalls in cleaning is underneath counter-top equipment such as meat slicers, tin openers, etc,” he says.

Hurst estimates that between 80 and 90 per cent of the kitchens he inspects have some issue with cleaning under large equipment. “Not only is that unhygienic,” he points out. “It can attract pests.”

In many cases it’s the kitchen porters who are responsible for cleaning. “The problem with that is they are under the supervision of the chef, who is often not present when cleaning is being done.”

Hurst also often sees the incorrect products being used for cleaning – for example a detergent rather than a sanitiser. “I usually recommend that hot soapy water is probably the best solution for basic cleanliness. When using a sanitiser I often advise my clients to find one with as short a contact time as possible – five minutes, for example, is simply not practical in a busy kitchen.”

Vital to any hygiene programme, in any application, is hand hygiene and here Hurst finds much work to be done. “There is still a real lack of knowledge about the consequences of bad hand hygiene,” he explains. “Staff really must have proper training in hand washing technique, with soap and water and paper towels. In the kitchen, our hands are our worst enemies.”

Safe kitchen hygiene can only be achieved by a team of people who are all trained in the correct procedures, who know what they are doing and why they’re doing it. “There also has to be a supervisory system in place,” Hurst emphasises, “in order to monitor and check that standards are being maintained. There is no room for complacency or negligence because the consequences can be extremely serious.”


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