Acrylamide forms from naturally present substances in the food; asparagine (an amino acid) in combination with sugars. It is activated by high temperatures during cooking (particularly frying, roasting, toasting and baking). The main types of food groups that are of concern include potato, cereal and coffee based products. Potato, bread and pastry products (including biscuits, crackers, toast and chips) produce more acrylamide when over-cooked (partly due to them being particularly starchy). It is said that acrylamide can cause cancer it is therefore important that food is not overcooked.
The European Food Standards Agency took the view in 2015 that acrylamide is a carcinogenic substance and that regulations were needed to limit dietry exposure to it.
All food businesses in the EU need to put in place mitigation measures to reduce acrylamide; larger food businesses such as manufacturers need to monitor the effectiveness of those measures by quantitative analysis.
There are some simple steps that caterers can take to reduce acrylamide risks:
Before cooking staff should soak fresh potatoes in water after cutting and drain before cooking to reduce the starch/sugar content. Potatoes must also not be stored in the fridge as they can form higher sugar content.
Of particular concern is deep fat frying. The longer you fry a food product such as potatoes or coated products (such as bread-crumbed items) the more acrylamide is produced. Oil must be changed regularly and regularly skimmed to remove food debris throughout the service period.
Oven cooking, toasting and grilling also presents a significant risk though so bread and pastry products must not be over-cooked or burnt. Chefs must ensure that they are cooked to a lighter shade, whilst still ensuring that the core is cooked thoroughly. Cutting potatoes and other food to similar sizes helps to ensure even cooking. Any darker or burnt items should be disposed of.
Learn more about the health effects of acrylamide from the World Health Organisation.
Thermometers are used to monitor controls and verify that controls have taken place in accordance with expectations. There are a variety of different types of thermometer. However, it is the probe thermometer, fridge thermometers, display thermometers and infra-red thermometers that are most commonly used in catering establishments. In a minority of cases data loggers and automated alarm systems are used as an alternative to manual monitoring by staff. Glass thermometers are not permitted.
The probe thermometer is an important tool as it can be used to monitor and verify hot (for example, when cooking or reheating) and cold temperatures. It must be checked for accuracy once a week. Disinfectant probe wipes are a useful way of disinfecting probe thermometers. Excess food debris should be rinsed off the probe using hot water and detergent. Disinfectant wipes can then be used before and after each application to disinfect probes.
Infra-red thermometers provide a useful quick way of checking the surface temperature of food. They may be used on daily storage checks and deliveries to provide an estimation of temperature.
Where critical limits are exceeded a probe thermometer should be used to check food temperatures or carry out between-pack monitoring. They must not be relied upon for accuracy or be used for checking core temperatures as they will only give an indication of surface temperature. When cooking foods like poultry or meat products like burgers a probe thermometer will be more appropriate.
Refrigerator and freezer thermometers may be used to monitor fridge and freezer temperatures. In-built refrigeration displays on chilled units may be used as an alternative for checking storage temperatures. Weekly checks on fridge thermometers must be made to ensure that they remain accurate.
Separation of raw and ready-to-eat food items is necessary throughout your whole food operation (apart from the cooking stage). Where food is supplied or delivered adequate separation must be maintained; even where staff are unloading or decanting food items. Communication with delivery drivers and suppliers may be necessary to ensure that controls are maintained.
Ideally, you should designate a room or area for the specific task of raw food preparation. The area must be clearly identifiable as a raw food preparation area by signage. Where a specific room or preparation area is not able to be designated a temporary area must be designated as the raw food preparation area and time/separation controls imposed in order to control the potential of cross-contamination; along with appropriate cleaning and disinfection procedures. Where possible, separate colour coded equipment (such as boards) must be used in accordance with industry standards.
Time/separation controls involve designating a time where raw and ready-to-eat foods are prepared. Any bulk preparation of raw foods should be undertaken outside service periods to limit the potential for cross-contamination. Once raw foods have been prepared all equipment must be removed and cleaned/disinfected, working areas and fixtures must be disinfected and new equipment provided for the preparation of other food items. Different personnel and work clothing (such as aprons) may also be used between tasks.
The use of colour-coded equipment is necessary; particularly colour coded boards. They must be used in accordance with standard industry policy. Ideally they should be small enough to place through the dishwasher for thermal disinfection. It is recommended that spare boards are kept in storage in case of damage.
Food items taken from their original packaging or food prepared on-site from raw materials may also pose a food safety risk if it is kept beyond its shelf-life. Date coding is used to maintain a control on the shelf-life of food items in a catering establishment. It is also used for stock rotation purposes and to minimise food waste. Preparing foods in bulk can save time during service period so that food preparation is minimised and so that food does not have to be prepared from scratch every time. Wherever possible portioning can help speed up service activities and freezing can help prevent wastage (remember to cool quickly and keep food out of the danger zone).
Different staff members often become confused about the shelf-life of products stored (particularly in refrigerators) if consistency in the date-coding scheme is not maintained. Dates must therefore be applied according to the following rules.
Day-dots or ‘weekday’ style stickers can be applied according to the day of expiry. In other words, if a food is cooked on a Monday it will be labelled with a Wednesday sticker. It can then be used until the end of Wednesday but not on the Thursday. On Thursday staff must ensure that items containing a Wednesday sticker are removed before any food preparation commences.
Some date labels (like the ones featured above) come off quite easily when containers need to be washed. There are also date labelling guns that can be used to quickly and easily apply labels to the side or top of food containers or packaging.
One of the main causes for the closure of a food business is pest infestation. Pests harbour and transfer pathogens to food and can cause damage to food stocks. Public awareness of a pest infestation can cause significant reputational damage too.
All food businesses must have a system of pest management in place and procedures for checking for pest activity. Usually, this is achieved with the assistance of a pest control contract with a qualified pest control operative. Using a qualified pet control operator enables the business to employ a range of tactics to prevent and control pests; including the use of pesticides. Only trained pest control contractors are permitted to use pesticides in food businesses and their use must be strictly controlled to prevent food contamination.
Pest infestations may occur for a number of reasons and these will largely be dependent upon the type of pest. With most vertebrate pests (such as rodents and birds) the most important preventative measure is to proof the property to deny access to pests from the outside. Any gaps or holes in the structure should be removed; a solid structure without voids and spaces will help prevent harbourage. Proofing is also an important measure to be taken to prevent flying insects such as house flies and blowflies. Insect screens should be provided where natural ventilation is required to prevent pest access.
Smaller insect pests may easily gain access, for example, via contaminated food. It is therefore important to check all food items for potential pest activity when they are delivered and in storage. You must rotate stock regularly and should not keep large amounts of food stock for long periods of time.
Damaged food equipment will harbour microorganisms and allow for the accumulation of dirt. Loose parts or broken elements of food equipment may cause physical contamination of food. It is therefore important that they are maintained in good condition. Plastic, in particular, can become brittle over time and become difficult to clean. Even equipment such as sieves and frying baskets may often wear over time and become a potential source of metal contamination. Visual checks must be made on equipment frequently and any defects, damage or missing parts must be reported to the manager directly and recorded on the daily/weekly diary. Equipment must be taken out of service is there is a chance of food contamination.
Complex equipment or equipment with moving parts tend to be more difficult to clean. It is therefore best to use separate equipment for raw and ready-to-eat food items (or items that are going to be consumed without cooking). This includes vacuum packing and mincing equipment which should be clearly labelled ‘raw meat only’ and ‘cooked foods’ (or similar) in order to distinguish uses. Vacuum bags and associated equipment must also be kept separate.
Staff must always store food equipment in clean conditions away from sources of potential contamination. Equipment may be turned upside down or wrapped to prevent contamination. Equipment that is not used on a daily basis should be cleaned before use. Where equipment is used for mixed purposes it must be suitable for such a use; in that any component parts may be removed and cleaned/disinfected appropriately.
Wooden equipment is generally not permitted as it will harbour microorganisms and become easily scored (wooden chopping blocks are permitted for raw meat preparation though in certain circumstances e.g. where a considerable amount of butchery takes place). Jointed boards should be avoided. Wooden serving platters may be used if they are made of durable hard-wood, cleaned effectively and do not come into direct contact with food. Any split wooden equipment must be disposed of.
All equipment must be washed and/or disinfected appropriately between uses to prevent cross-contamination.
Since Covid-19 more businesses have become interested in carrying out food deliveries; including the provision of hot meals. Demand for delivery services has grown massively; even traditional services such as those provided by “milk-men” have received a surge in new customers. If you are thinking of adapting your business to include food delivery and have not previously provided this service you may find this information on food deliveries and food safety useful.
Changes to the Operation
If you were previosuly a retailer and not involved in the preparation of open or hot food it may be that you need to adapt your premises and food rooms in order to become compliant with food law before carrying out this activity. You will also need to reconsider and review food safety management systems and procedures. Suitable training and instruction will need to be provided to staff.
Many businesses already take orders by telephone, web or via 3rd party digital platforms. Allergen information is an important issue to many consumers and you must ensure that you comply with food information rules. When ordering food customers must be able to access allergen information; this can either be provided in writing or orally when customers telephone. Clear communication is key in understanding customer needs and, of course, ingredient information must be accurate.
When the food is prepared for delivery it is important that cross-contamination does not take place. Clean single-use food-grade containers may be used for providing food. Each item should be labelled clearly so that customers are able to distinguish between different food items.
Whether you are delivering cold or hot food temperature controls are important for maintaining food safety and customer enjoyment. Monitoring will be necessary if transporting chilled or frozen items for any length of time. However, short periods outside of temperature control are permitted for very quick journeys. Long journeys or multiple stops will require refrigerated vehicles if transporting chilled food items.
Protecting from Contamination
Food boxes and transport must be cleaned and disinfected regularly. They should be maintained in an upright position to prevent spillages. Tamper-proof seals should protect outer packaging (such as paper bags) from any potential contamination.
Regular cleaning, disinfection and hand-washing is incredibly important. If you are using personal protective equipment such as face masks and gloves it is also important that these are used correctly and that they do not, themselves, become a source of contamination. The best way in which food handlers can maintain good personal hygiene is by frequently washing their hands. Gloves are no substitute for regular hand washing.
Out of all of the historical accounts of food safety and public health the story of “Typhoid Mary” is one that is worth repeating to anyone who is learning about the subject.
Typhoid is a particular type of salmonella that can be spread via the faecal-oral route. It can easily be passed on via preparation and service of cold foods; due to poor personal hygiene.
Mary was born in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. In her twenties, along with many others, she emigrated to New York and gained employment as a domestic cook. Each residence Mary worked at people would become sick as they were struck down with Typhoid. Mary moved from family to family; leaving a trail of destruction in her wake.
Mary Mallon was asymptomatic (did not present any symptoms) which is one of the reasons why this bug can be so problematic. Mary would not have known she was contagious. People who are infected with diseases and who have the potential to pass on infections are known as “carriers”.
After several families (and their domestic staff) were affected she was eventually identified as an asymptomatic carrier after a private investigation was launched. She was subsequently detained under medical authority for a period of three years. She was released under the condition that she no longer cook for people. However, Mary changed her name to avoid being noticed and began again to work as a cook.
She was identified after an outbreak occurred in a hospital she was working in suffered from a Typhoid outbreak. The authorities detained Mary once more; and was not released.
Until her death Mary Mallon believed she had been detained unnecessarily and, at the time, many agreed. Today, we can detect and treat illnesses much more easily and accurately. We are also able to screen sufferers and close contacts to determine whether they are carriers. However, the exclusion of workers from certain roles and responsibilities remains an important tool that is used against the spread of disease. Those who prepare food or who interact with vulnerable people are examples of those who must take their personal hygiene and fitness to work most seriously. In light of the recent pandemic people are more aware than ever of the need to isolate potential carriers; the story of Typhoid Mary therefore is just as relevant today that it was a century ago.
There has been a great deal of interest in hand sanitizers recently; especially in relation to Covid-19. Hand sanitizers have been used in the food industry and healthcare settings for a long time and it is only really very recently that the subject has landed on the radar of the ‘great unwashed’. So what do we know about them and their use from a food business perspective and how effective is hand sanitizer?
It has been long established science that washing hands with soap (usually liquid hand soap) and under running warm water is the most effective way of cleaning hands. The mechanical action of the rubbing and running water, coupled with the soap’s ability to release dirt and particles helps to remove bacteria and viruses from the skin. In most food businesses (e.g. those preparing food intended for consumption soon after preparation such as restaurants) this, in and of itself, is deemed as a sufficient measure to maintain personal hygiene. In other establishments (such as manufacturing settings or in premises serving vulnerable persons like hospitals or nursing homes) the additional step of applying hand sanitizer is seen as a beneficial second stage.
Hand sanitising should never be used as a substitute for proper hand washing. Sanitizer may be applied, most commonly, after thorough hand washing under warm water and thorough drying using a clean disposable paper towel. Dispensers are usually fixed to the wall next to hand wash basins and refillable. Any hand-contact surfaces or equipment (such as triggers or nozzles) must therefore also be subject to regular cleaning and disinfection. Rubbing of the solution into the hand generally follows a similar format to that suggested for hand washing techniques (so that the whole area of the hand fingers and lower wrist are brought into contact with the sanitizer.
An alcohol content of at least 60% has been shown to be effective against many organisms; check the label to see how much there is. Here is some more advice on hand sanitizers from CDC.