How to ensure your food is safe to eat
With food poisoning outbreaks an escalating problem that can ruin your reputation, operators need to ensure their food is always safe to eat. Angela Frewin checks out the options
When the Food Standards Agency increased its estimate of the incidence of foodborne illnesses in the UK to around 2.4 million cases a year (up from a million in 2009), it also reported that eating out (37%) and takeaways (26%) accounted for the majority of the norovirus outbreaks that cause 60% of all food-poisoning incidents.
Those statistics are a sobering reminder of why the Food Safety Act 1990 and the Food Safety and Hygiene Regulations 2013 compel caterers to follow a food safety management scheme along HACCP (hazard analysis, critical control point) principles.
Now a respiratory microbe has catapulted hospitality hygiene – especially food hygiene ratings (FHRs) – way up the menu of key issues for nearly 66% of consumers, according to a recent survey by KAM for consultant Food Alert. "Our research shows that FHRs are decision-makers – or breakers – for consumers, and getting the scores on the door can be the difference between business success and failure," explains Food Alert operations director Mike Williams.
The KAM survey showed that FHRs are the fifth most important consideration for consumers in deciding where to eat out, and third in importance for choosing a venue for food delivery. An "incredibly unforgiving" 49% are adopting a ‘one strike and you're out' policy towards outlets that flunk their hygiene expectations. HACCP compliancy involves keeping food temperatures within legally defined parameters at all stages – from delivery van to plate. It is the key to protecting customers from the food-poisoning outbreaks that can incur reputational ruin, costly litigation and even shutdown for a business. Monitoring (and recording) those temperatures gives caterers a key argument when it comes to convincing inspectors that they are HACCP-compliant.
Historically, this has been a cumbersome and error-prone minefield, as Tim Gamble, executive chairman at food safety systems specialist Monika, points out, "Paper-based, manual temperature monitoring records are time-consuming and labour-intensive at best, and at worst, inaccurate and non-compliant with legislation and regulations."
The pandemic has showcased the benefits of modern wireless technology in automating, streamlining and derisking compliance. As Stephen Hobbs, chair of the Foodservice Equipment Association (FEA), says: "Modern temperature monitoring systems can cover every stage of commercial food production, from storage to prep, cooking to serving."
He is seeing more appliances such as ovens and fridges ready-equipped with automated systems that monitor and record their operating processes. Increasingly, newer models are incorporating wireless connectivity, which allows remote access to consolidated data and facilitates warning systems that can detect the early signs of equipment failure.
"The growth of automated sensor packages taking over tasks that previously had to be done by staff increased significantly in the past year, driven by factors as diverse as staff shortages and businesses moving to a delivery/takeaway model during lockdowns," Hobbs adds. "It is quick and easy to retrofit sensors to existing equipment."
Jason Webb, director at Electronic Temperature Instruments (ETI), hails food temperature monitoring sensors as the "hidden heroes" of lockdown that have helped caterers adapt to increased deliveries and unexpected facility closures. He says that advanced WiFi data loggers helped Britain reduce its food waste by 11% during the pandemic (bucking the global upwards trend) by preventing spoilage of refrigerated food in storage or in transit.
Last year yielded record revenues for ETI, whose penknife-inspired digital food thermometers took off during the 1988 salmonella-in-eggs scare. Five years before that, Jason's father, Peter Webb, started up the company in his garden shed after a short-sighted family banker refused him a £2,000 loan.
ETI's latest thermometer, Thermapen One, has been five years in the making. It takes food temperatures in less than one second, to an improved accuracy of ±0.3°C. The waterproof thermometer has a faster sensor, a brighter backlight that adapts to ambient light, and an antimicrobial casing.
MonikaPrime is a cloud-based safety, hygiene and compliance management system that, "connects equipment and teams to ensure safe temperatures and working methods, dramatically reducing staff time required for manual food safety or temperature checks and generating significant savings through improved efficiency and reduced waste," says Gamble. Managers can browse the performance of equipment and teams and, in multisite operations, gain insights into underperforming units.
The Bluetooth-equipped food probes transmit fully traceable records of temperature, time and user against specific products to hand-held Android devices that can also prompt other food safety or hygiene tasks via audible or visual reminders.
Sensors in fridges, freezers and coldrooms record data round the clock, simulating the temperature of food rather than air temperatures for greater accuracy, and alerting staff to temperature deviations and out-of-hours hazards, such as power outages. Optional sensors can monitor door openings or compressor performance.
There are simpler, cheaper solutions for smaller businesses that lack the budget to invest in advanced technology or existing HACCP software. Trail is a hospitality workforce management app that uses digital checklists to guide teams through daily tasks and keep managers in the loop over what has and hasn't been done. As well as recording fridge and food temperatures, it allows staff to record any issues, backed with photographic evidence.
"Trail can quickly capture data from across the team," says company co-founder and managing director Joe Cripps. "It will also prompt your teams if food temperature is outside the normal range, and whether the item needs further cooking or should be disposed of."
Launched by two practising environmental health officers, the SFBB+ app is digital alternative to the Food Standards Agency's paper-based Safer Food, Better Business (SFBB) system, priced at £4.99 a month per premises after a free 90-day trial.
It offers a simple, jargon-free way to deliver HACCP-based food safety management systems. But Colin Alborough, co-founder of SFBB+ and All Environmental Health Services, warns that many food inspection failures stem from the practical problems involved in keeping paperwork in good order. "During the many thousands of inspections we have carried out as regulators, it is all too common for the SFBB+ pack to be lost, left at home, dirty beyond recognition or have run out of diary sheets."
Because, unlike other systems, the SFBB+ app has primary authority status, inspectors are obliged to accept its data. And as the paper-based pack cannot, SFBB+ allows operators to keep records of critical temperatures (via phone-generated photos). For technically unsavvy staff, SFBB+ offers the option of hybrid reusable diary packs for handwritten records that can be scanned to the app each week before being wiped clean for reuse.
Each SFBB+ account can be shared with up to 20 staff, and caterers can also share the electronic records digitally with inspectors. According to James Allaker, primary authority lead at Luton Council, it's an approach that aligns with "the increase in remote and desktop-based inspections" seen during the pandemic and is one that may "play a role in the development of future Food Standards Agency inspection strategies".
Scores on the doors
The KAM/Food Alert survey of 500 adults found younger customers are most exacting in their food hygiene expectations and more ratings-aware across multiple channels.
According to the survey, 18- to 34-year-olds are more likely to check food hygiene ratings before choosing a venue to eat out (42%) or order food delivery (84%) than older people, and regard a 4 as the minimum acceptable FHR, rising to 5 for start-up venues. The survey concluded that this provides operators with the "opportunity to use positive FHR scores to drive footfall".
Failure to display the FHR is risky, as the latest tracker of public attitudes, published by the Food Standards Agency in June 2020, found that 62% of respondents equate the lack of a visible FHR display with poor hygiene standards.
Webb at ETI outlines the following five critical temperature solutions for a HACCP plan.
Deliveries. Measuring and recording the temperature of incoming goods will help you eliminate the risk of hazards penetrating the food supply chain and ensure fresh produce is being received.
Food storage. Check that fridges and freezers are not running at unsafe temperatures, as harmful bacteria can quickly multiply to dangerous levels in food that may still look, smell and taste normal.
Food preparation. Use a clean food temperature probe to check food dishes are properly cooked and reheated so that any harmful pathogens will be killed off.
Food service. Reheat food properly to kill the harmful microbes that may have grown since the food was cooked. This means recooking the food, not just warming it up.
Calibration/Validation. Thermometer calibration is essential at all points for both food safety and economic reasons.
According to SFBB+ co-founder Colin Alborough, the principal HACCP failures in catering premises are:
- Incomplete or missing diary records
- Failure to follow or complete safe methods
- Failure to effectively manage temperature controls
- Expired or missing date-coding of foods
- Cross-contamination risks from failure to keep foods separate
- Failure to implement adequate cleaning and disinfection.
Food hygiene ratings
The Scores on the Doors scheme was aligned in 2011 with the six-tier food hygiene rating scheme approved by the Food Standards Agency for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland operates a two-tier food hygiene information scheme. It is mandatory for FHR stickers to be displayed prominently in-store in Northern Ireland and Wales, but not yet in England or Scotland.
Scores on the Doors
- Elite Award for three consecutive 5 ratings
- 5 Hygiene standards very good
- 4 Hygiene standards good
- 3 Hygiene standards generally satisfactory
- 2 Some improvement necessary
- 1 Major improvement necessary
- 0 Urgent improvement required
Scottish FHR scheme
- Pass and Eat Safe (exceeding legal standards)
- Improvement Required
Food Alert www.foodalert.com
Scores on the Doors www.scoresonthedoors.org.uk
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