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Food Safety

Why is food safety important?

Food safety and hygiene means taking the necessary precautions in order to ensure that food is fit for human consumption and does not create an environmental health hazard. There are significant legal, ethical and business reasons why food safety should be part of any restaurant or food service establishment’s overall approach to management and meeting quality standards:

What are the issues?

Each year in the UK alone, as many as 5.5 million people suffer from food-borne illnesses – one in ten of the population3. The microscopic bacteria, viruses, yeasts, moulds and parasites that can contaminate food are so small that millions of them can fit on the head of a pin4. Whilst some micro-organisms (such as mould on bread) are easily detected, often they do not affect the appearance, smell or taste of food. It is therefore essential to follow strict procedures to avoid the risk of causing illness. Table 1 shows some of the food-borne micro-organisms which pose the greatest threats to health, where they are found and how they are transmitted.

Table 1: Common dangerous food-borne micro-organisms

Organism Examples Sources/cause of illness
Bacteria Campylobacter Found in raw poultry and meat, unpasteurised milk, and untreated water. Birds pecking bottle tops and pets with diarrhoea can also be a source of infection
Clostridium botulinum (Botulism) Rare but serious illness caused by a toxin produced by the Clostridium botulinum bacterium. Can lead to respiratory failure and paralysis. Has been found in home-canned foods with low acid content, oils infused with garlic or herbs and improperly handled baked potatoes
Escherichia coli (E. coli) Flora living in the lower intestines of mammals. Can be found in cheese and contaminated meat that has not been properly cooked
Listeria monocytogenes Bacteria can grow at fridge temperature. Can be found in unpasteurised milk and soft cheeses, pâté, uncooked meat and seafood, rice and ready-to-eat delicatessen foods such as sushi
Salmonella Potentially fatal bacteria found in poultry, eggs, unpasteurised milk, meat and water. Outbreaks most common in warmer temperatures. Usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal faeces
Shigella Shigellosis is generally contracted through water polluted with human faeces. Causes dysentry. As few as
10 bacterial cells can be enough to cause an infection
Parasites Cyclospora Spread by ingestion of water or food contaminated with infected faeces. Outbreaks of cyclosporiasis have been linked to produce such as soft fruit, sprayed with pesticides mixed with contaminated water
Giardia intestinalis
(also known as Giardia lamblia)
Found in soil, improperly cooked food, water, or on surfaces that have been contaminated with the faeces of infected humans or animals
Trichinella spiralis Causes trichinosis (also called trichinellosis, or trichiniasis) a parasitic disease caught by eating raw or undercooked pork and wild game products infected with the larvae of the roundworm trichinella spiralis or trichina worm. Most common in the developing world and where pigs are commonly fed raw garbage
Viruses Hepatitis A Intestinal virus transmitted by contaminated food. Causes an acute form of hepatitis (inflammation of the liver)
Norovirus  Causes winter vomiting disease, viral gastroenteritis and acute non-bacterial gastroenteritis. Can be water or food-borne. Shellfish (such as raw or insufficiently steamed clams and oysters) and salad ingredients are most often implicated. Other foods are often contaminated by food handlers with the virus

How can food safety be improved?

The most important issues to address are often referred to as ‘The Four C’s’ – Cleaning, Cross-contamination (including disposal), Cooking and Chilling (including freezing and thawing). Most aspects of food safety fall into these categories, and your food safety management programme should be built around these principles.

Cleaning and hygiene

Avoiding cross-contamination

Cooking

Case Study : Nile cruises, Egypt
In 1998 a cruise along the River Nile was a popular choice for British holidaymakers. However almost 50 per cent of them suffered food or water-related illnesses. As a result, the boats gained a reputation for being floating hospitals – which did not enhance their desirability as a holiday destination.

The Nile Cruise Association realised they had to act and employed the services of a specialist food safety company to implement a HACCP system. The system was based on stringent World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines and its primary aim was to ensure that the cruise boats comply with internationally recognised food hygiene standards and so minimise the risk of tourists becoming ill.

The system reviews all aspects of the operation from staff training to kitchen design and how to handle, store, cook, present and get rid of waste food in as safe a manner as possible. Changes were made to water purification equipment to ensure that Nile water was not the source of infection when washing vegetables and fruit. The correct use of refrigeration and the correct monitoring of equipment were also vital to prevent infection.

The system has also been adopted by several members of the Egyptian Hotel Association. Boats and hotels are audited on a monthly basis and, after the 250-point audit, the manager receives a score and a report on each aspect of the operation in order to continuously improve standards. As a result, illness rates have fallen to very low levels on the boats and in the hotels that have incorporated the system, which has been extended to cover legionella and swimming pool safety and, even more recently, environmental issues.

This work has helped to bring about a continuously improving standard, which in turn has contributed to an increase in the number of tourists. British tourist arrivals in 2004 were up 163 per cent on the previous year.

Table 2: Recommended layout for multi-purpose refrigerators

Note: All food should be wrapped or in separate containers. Do not keep fresh fish longer than one day before cooking.

Level 6/to shelf Cheese, dairy products
Level 5 Cooked and cured meat
Level 4 Salad
Level 3 Pies, pâté, etc
Level 2 Uncooked red meats & sausages
Level 1/bottom shelf Uncooked poultry and fish

Chilling, freezing and thawing

Suppliers

Food safety management

Resources and Further Reading

Catering for Allergy
web: www.cateringforallergy.org [1]

Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH)
web: www.cieh.org [2]

Food and Drink Federation
web: www.fdf.org.uk [3]

Food Standards Agency
web: www.food.gov.uk [4]

Hotel & Catering International Management Association (HCIMA)
web: www.hcima.org.uk [5]

International Association for Food Protection
web: www.foodprotection.org/ [6]

Royal Society of Public Health
web:www.rsph.org.uk/ [7]

Society of Food Hygiene Technology (SOFHT)
web: www.sofht.co.uk [8]

World Health Organisation (WHO)
web: www.who.org [9]

US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)
web: www.epa.gov [10]

US Food and Drug Administration
web:www.fda.gov/ [11]

We would like to thank the following for their help with this guide:

Nathalie Golden, Food Standards Agency

Jason Burnett and Mark Harrington, Check Safety First

Mandy Suiter, Foster Refrigerator

Lesley Pilbeam and David Glenister, SGS

Every attempt has been made to ensure the accuracy of this article. However, the International Tourism Partnership cannot accept any responsibility for actions based on this information.