Having investigated some severe cases of food poisoning, Sylvia Anderson is familiar with all the potential pitfalls in kitchen hygiene. Here she provides tips on how to prepare yourself and your staff for environmental health food safety inspections
With more councils publishing the results of their inspections online and scoring restaurants on their food safety results, it is more important then ever for your business to be prepared when the environmental health officer (EHO) pays you a visit.
According to the World Health Organisation, food-borne diseases kill 2.2 million people globally each year - albeit only 500 in the UK - yet the problem is believed to be largely underestimated because of the difficulty of tracking food-borne disease outbreaks.
The success of any restaurant depends as much on its food hygiene as it does on its food quality. It takes a great deal of effort to build up a good reputation in a food business, but if food safety problems occur, then reputations and profits will undoubtedly suffer, and in some cases the business may not survive the loss of consumer and business confidence. There is also the potential for legal action and for punitive penalties to be imposed by the local environmental health department.
Whatever the consequences, poor hygiene and food safety management are likely to be costly, so investing in good standards of safety and hygiene are good for business.
Food preparation has to be carried out in a safe, clean, well-organised environment by trained staff. Below are a number of self-audit checks you can carry out to make sure this is the case.
Whether you are using the Safer Food Better Business (SFBB) food safety management system or another scheme it is important to keep daily checks of the activities in the kitchen: start-up checks, refrigerator temperature checks, hot-hold checks, etc. These may take a few minutes to perform each day but are vital in recording that all kitchen activities are being performed correctly. They build up a body of evidence to prove that you are doing everything possible to produce safe food.
â- If you have one person who is responsible for filling out the checks, what happens when they are on holiday? Make sure another member of staff is trained and ready to do the checks in their absence. If you have a food poisoning incident and no records exist during the week that it occurred, explaining that the person responsible was on holiday will not be an acceptable.
â- Keep on top of change. If you get a new fridge or freezer or start a new activity - for example, serving a hot buffet - don't forget to add the appropriate checks to the list.
Cleaning of the kitchen should take place daily, with some cleaning being done less frequently. However often cleaning is performed it must be recorded as having been done. Using the right chemicals and protective apparatus is vital. A washing-up liquid will not sanitise a surface. Know your chemicals.
â- Use the right chemical for the right job and at the correct concentration.
Well-trained, informed staff are an asset to your business. All staff, whether permanent or temporary, should have some level of hygiene and food safety training. It may be sufficient for temporary staff with a low level of responsibility just to read through a food hygiene leaflet. More experienced staff with more responsibility will need to attend a hygiene course and perhaps a hazard analysis, critical control points (HACCP) course depending on the nature of your business.
â- If staff have limited knowledge of the English language, find a trainer who can train them and answer questions in their native tongue.
â- Make sure staff training needs are analysed on a regular basis and their skills and knowledge are kept up to date.
Food safety consultants can help you and your staff to prepare for an inspection. They will get you started with a food safety management system that is tailor-made to suit your business. Additionally, they may be able to offer an auditing service where they inspect the restaurant on a regular basis and help you to keep on top of record keeping and hygiene.
Alternatively, you could try looking at your restaurant with fresh eyes, or ask a friend to. Write a series of questions for yourself, perhaps basing them on your last inspection.
â- Visit other kitchens. Those that you know to have a good food safety rating could help you to make improvements in your own.
â- Maintain a good relationship with your local EHO. Don't be afraid to ask their advice. They have a lot of experience and want to help you.
Many restaurant owners may think that they can't afford a regular audit by an expert to make sure that their food safety standards are up to scratch, or they may be tempted to overlook staff training needs, but the cost of keeping up to date with these things is going to be far less than a food safety incident could cost your business in the long run.
If you take a proactive approach and put all the right measures in place, your business will benefit, your staff and customers will be happy and you could end up with a very high score on your door.
Scores on the doors
Many local authorities now make detailed results of food safety inspections publicly available. These food hygiene scores, known as Scores on the Doors, can be searched by business, street, postcode or type of premises, so there's no hiding place if your premises are poorly rated.
All food premises are awarded star ratings according to the following scale:
Excellent - five stars Very high standards of compliance with food safety legislation. Demonstrating best practice in managing and achieving this.
Very good - four stars High standard of compliance with food safety legislation. Robust food safety management.
Good - three stars Good level of legal compliance. Only minor safety issues not addressed.
Broadly compliant- two stars Broadly compliant with food safety legislation. An understanding of food safety, and standards being maintained or being improved.
Poor- one star Some non-compliance with food safety legislation. More effort required.
Very poor - no stars A general failure to comply with legal requirements. Little or no appreciation of food safety.
The frequency of food safety inspection varies from six months to two years and is determined by the risk the business poses, as specified in a national code of practice. Each business is notified of its rating at the time of inspection, and this is confirmed in writing.
More information on the scores and how they are calculated can be found on the Food Standards Agency website
Scores on the move
Just as consumers read reviews online, they can also search for a Scores on the Doors star rating.
And now this information is going to be made more immediate with the launch of a mobile phone app that will reveal the star rating of London restaurants on the go.
Tay Potier, London policy officer at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, says it will act as a quality assurance scheme "and hopefully drive up hygiene standards across the capital".
It will also help protect the many visitors to the capital, believes Steve Miller, chair of the Association of London Environmental Health Managers. "The 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games are fast approaching, and they are bringing with them a worldwide focus on the capital," he says. "Introducing the initiative now will help raise the awareness of businesses of their responsibilities."