The idea has developed that, as a nation, we have become too clean, that much of the ill health and allergies we suffer are because we're no longer exposed regularly to germs. So does this mean that the nation's kitchens and hotel bathrooms are being over-scrubbed? Rob Easton and Tom Vaughan report
"The natural immune system does not have as much to do as it did 50 years ago, because we've increased our efforts to protect our children from dirt and germs," said Marc McMorris, a pediatric allergist at the University of Michigan Health System, in September. "We've developed a cleanlier lifestyle, and our bodies no longer need to fight germs as much as they did in the past."
McMorris was writing on the university's website, convinced that today's growing allergies among children are as the result of a too-clean climate. He argues that by exposing the body to various bugs the immune system is strengthened, so when a particularly nasty organism, such as E coli or salmonella, is encountered we are better equipped to fight it. In effect, the immune system is thought of as a muscle, needing exercise like any other muscle, and this exercise comes from fighting bugs on a regular basis.
The theory that "dirt is good for you" is also known as the hygiene hypothesis, and has been growing in popularity ever since first being postulated by David Strachan, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in 1989. Recent research among German children found that those living on farms, amidst the dirt and the dung, were healthier than those who lived in other places. In another study, children with pets were discovered to be better off than those without exposure to dirty animal hair.
But other research had participants being asked to clean work surfaces and their hands to a point where they believed them to be suitable for handling food. Subsequent tests of the hands and surfaces found that more than 15% were not sufficiently clean, and organisms were present at a level that could cause cross-contamination and lead to ill health.
Another study showed that nearly a quarter of surfaces considered to be sufficiently cleaned by food handlers were actually still contaminated to a level that could lead to food poisoning. Even when food-preparation surfaces have been cleaned properly, it has been found that within an hour-and-a-half to three hours the surface can become contaminated again to a level that could cause illness. So, are we really cleaning as well as we thought?
In September 2005 contaminated meat was supplied by a butcher to a number of schools throughout South Wales. Within days reports emerged of pupils having diarrhoea. Quickly this developed into the second-largest outbreak of E coli poisoning that had ever occurred in the UK, and the butcher was closed down. More than 42 schools and 157 pupils were affected, and a five-year-old pupil died. In the subsequent investigation and court case the butcher's cleaning practices were described as "completely inadequate".
The likely source of the contamination was identified as a vacuum-packing machine that had been used for both raw and cooked meats. Inspectors found "fundamental failures" in cleaning, including congealed debris and dirt on the machine. Amazingly, when the butcher was asked how the equipment was cleaned he produced a dirty brush and bucket. He was sentenced to one year in prison.
Clearly we're not as clean as we think. According to Geoff Ward, consultant to hygiene company National Britannia: "Certain sectors can be worse than others. There are some fantastic cost-sector operations out there in banks and hospitals, but when you come to more 24-hour operations like restaurants and hotels the picture isn't so good. They find it harder, because they're so busy. Sometimes they're guilty of not investing enough in hygiene systems. Smaller operations with fewer staff can also sometimes lack the inclination to do proper cleaning."
Research bears him out. Of the 244,901 restaurants and caterers that were inspected by environmental health officers in 2006 and 2007, 124,317 establishments were found not to have met the requirements of food safety legislation, and a total of 443 food businesses were prosecuted for food safety offences. While it is not stated what these failures were, it is reasonable to assume that a good percentage relate to the cleanliness of premises, as this is the most common reason for prosecution reported in the press. Prosecutions often result in substantial fines for the operator.
A new Scores on the Doors scheme will see all food establishments awarded stars based on their food hygiene performance at the time of a visit by the environmental health officer. This scheme will allow customers to view a restaurant's score online or on the frontage. With this information they can choose to eat there or go elsewhere.
"Environmental health guidelines are in place for a reason," says James Arnold, UK business leader for sales and marketing at P&G Professional. "It's in order to protect the public. Caterers should view them as a tool for business success rather than a hindrance. Good hygiene isn't difficult to achieve it's about putting simple-to-follow practices in place, ensuring all the kitchen staff stick to them religiously and use cleaning products correctly and in the right dosage."
When Michelin-starred chef Mike North bought himself a restaurant he found the kitchen so filthy it embarrassed him. "It's virtually impossible to work in a kitchen that's dirty," he says. "The grease hangs in the air and the cutlery and crockery end up tasting of it. Where the previous owners had been told to degrease surfaces they'd just painted over it. Suppliers would come in and measure up and it'd be embarrassing to say the least - and that was without the customers knowing."
But are we using too many chemicals for cleaning purposes? The choice may be wider than before, but the actual number of chemicals sold, and therefore the amount of cleaning that is being undertaken, has remained about the same. According to Ward: "For all the chemicals available, hot water, detergent and elbow grease are still a cleaner's best friend."
Cut down on chemicals, then, but not on the actual act of cleaning. "Cleanliness is the backbone of an operation," says Ward. "With good cleanliness but a bad system of checking you might get away with a telling-off from an environmental health officer. Bad cleanliness and you will be in trouble."
Rob Easton is a former local government health inspector and has worked as a health and safety manager in the private sector as well as a lecturer in environmental health studies
James Arnold, UK business leader, sales and marketing, P&G Professional:
"The question is often raised in relation to our homes, ‘Are we as a nation too concerned with disinfecting and cleaning?' Opinion is generally divided. However, when focusing on the out-of-home arena, and particularly professional kitchens, this is a question that must never be asked.
"It is imperative that high standards of hygiene are reached and maintained in all professional establishments - regardless of size or sector. It is the responsibility of all operators to ensure that they give as much time, effort and importance to implementing watertight cleaning procedures as they do to other parts of the business. Without good hygiene practice the customers will speak with their feet, and recovering from a reputation of poor hygiene is a lot tougher than from one of poor food, service or decor.
"Here at P&G Professional we are committed to continually developing and supplying cleaning products and solutions for the hospitality industry, to help operators achieve and uphold the levels of cleanliness expected by the public and the industry.
"In fact, I am proud to announce the launch of Fairy Expert, our new range of products from the trusted Fairy brand for the professional kitchen. The range includes cleaner sanitiser, heavy-duty kitchen degreaser and concentrated washing-up liquid in two variants. These products, when used correctly throughout the kitchen can help to keep the area clean, sanitised and free from grease. Fairy Expert is available now, and the leaflet inside this issue of Caterer will give you more information."
Try it for yourself. Log on to www.caterersearch.com/fairyexpert to claim your free sample from the Fairy Expert range.
Kitchen hygiene tips from P&G Professional
- Don't assume that everyone knows about basic food and personal hygiene principles. Remind and refresh your staff regularly.
- Make it clear from the outset what you expect from your staff in regard to cleaning, and display your "rules" for all to see. A cleaning check list is also handy for easy reference and to ensure nothing is missed.
- Target specific areas that are most in contact with food for regular disinfection - eg, cleaning cloths, chopping boards, utensils, fridge doors and work surfaces.
- Areas such as rubbish bin lids, door handles and light switches are also prone to cross-contamination and should be included on the cleaning rota.
- Don't ignore the areas you can't see. Gaps behind and underneath equipment are a perfect breeding ground for bacteria.
- Choose your cleaning products wisely. Cheaper products are not necessarily more cost-effective, and you could use a lot more to get the required result. Your staff will also be grateful for effective and efficient cleaning products.
The truth about ‘best before'
Despite best-before dates and use-by dates being a legal requirement, food business operators and consumers still struggle with what both of these mean, and what exactly the legal implications are of the delineated periods.
However, what is done at home and what happens in a food business is completely different. Simply put, a best-before date is an indication of quality only. If it is passed, the food may have deteriorated in texture, appearance or taste. It is not an offence to have or serve food that has passed its best-before date. The exception is eggs, which must not be sold, or used, beyond the date stamped on them.
A use-by date, on the other hand, is a date that must be displayed on certain highly perishable foods, as those items may become harmful to health after that date. It is an offence to sell or serve food that has exceeded its use-by date. Even if you simply have food on the premises that has exceeded its use-by date, you are committing an offence, as it is assumed that, unless labelled otherwise, all food in a food business is going to be served to the public.
Examples of such foods include smoked meats and ready-to-eat items such as sandwiches and dairy products. Use-by dates are set by the manufacturer and must be based on scientific study.
The situation has been confused further by manufacturers using new "sell by" dates and "display until" dates. These dates are solely used to aid stock rotation and do not have any legal implications.
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer as to whether "best before" means "don't use". It depends on the health of the individual consuming the product and how well the food has been stored. All use-by dates, on the other hand, assume that the food has been kept at the correct temperature and not abused. And no matter what you or your chefs think, it is illegal to store or serve food beyond that date.