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The Caterer

Is your kitchen as clean as a whistle?

19 March 2010
Is your kitchen as clean as a whistle?

Appearances on television don't always mean mean full bookings and enhanced reputations. Lisa Ackerley, a food safety advisor for Watchdog and Rogue Restaurants, dishes the dirt on some shameful premises and provides her tips to stay out of court.

Common hygiene pitfalls include poor stock rotation due to lack of labelling, the lack of a decent food safety manual and inadequate food temperature monitoring

Anyone working in the food service industry faces the toughest scrutiny that the sector has ever come under. A plethora of checks on food outlets is now in place, such as the local council Scores on the Doors schemes designed to help consumers make better informed choices about where they purchase food.

There's also recent freedom of information legislation that enables the media to root through food inspection reports and hygiene improvement notices to unearth "bad news" stories. And with this type of information just a few clicks away on the internet, there are fewer and fewer hiding places for shameful premises. This makes it more important than ever for food businesses to comply with the law and demonstrate safe practices if they want to stay out of court - and off TV.

The latest undercover footage in BBC1's Rogue Restaurants showed what goes on in a kitchen when no one is looking. It provided eye-opening scenes you'd never witness as an environmental health officer or auditor.

Footage showed staff at an Indian restaurant washing their feet, noses and ears in the kitchen sink - a high-risk recipe for cross contamination of body bacteria onto food or equipment. But the fault lay with the employers for not providing facilities for religious cleansing.

Staff at another restaurant were caught swigging out of a dessert sauce bottle to check whether it was off before serving it to customers - that's three no-no's in one simple action: putting human bacteria on food, non-existent labelling and using taste to assess whether something is OK to eat.

At an upmarket Mayfair restaurant we found a doorless toilet leading into the kitchen.

At a large wine bar chain, food returned from a customer's table was reheated and reused. Elsewhere, food that had been dropped on the floor was just picked up and served.

Some businesses are now using the secretly filmed footage for training purposes to understand people's misconceptions about food safety - from food being OK to eat if it looks/smells/tastes OK to the "30-second rule", which means food is OK to eat if it has been on the floor for less than 30 seconds. It's not!

SERIOUS ILLNESSES

And you nearly always get poisoned by something you can't see or smell. Two million E.coli bacteria can fit on a pinhead. It takes just 10 to make you ill.

Last September BBC1's Watchdog reported that hundreds of people had become seriously ill with illnesses like salmonella, campylobacter and cryptosporidium while staying at a holiday village in Sarigerme, Turkey.

These illnesses are caused, respectively, by food not being cooked or stored at the right temperature, cross-contamination of food, and faeces in water.

Our food safety audit didn't find the cause of the outbreaks but it did find that there was no hot water in some of the handwash basins in kitchens and snack bars, food wasn't always being kept at the right temperature and dishwashers weren't on a hot enough setting to kill bacteria. Also, faecal matter was found on ice used for drinks and a probe used to test the temperature of a burger wasn't disinfected first. More than 1,600 people are now suing or planning to sue the travel agent that marketed the resort in the UK.

Understanding what people think about food safety is key to changing their behaviour, but that can't happen overnight.

The most basic area where businesses tend to fail in terms of hazard analysis is by not writing their own food safety manual, which should be simple, practical and relevant.

All the time we see businesses that have manuals that look good but are unmanageable, impractical and just sit on the shelf gathering dust. What's the point in an "off-the-shelf" package that covers the basics but in reality achieves little?

The second stumbling block is when staff haven't got a clue about the system. From the washer-upper to the general manager, they all need training. The manager is bound to be away when the inspector turns up.

Other common pitfalls include fridges that aren't set at the right temperature, providing a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, and food that isn't clearly labelled or labelled at all, resulting in poor stock rotation and compromised food quality.

Having out-of-date food on your premises is like waving a red flag to any environmental food officer, which could see you in court facing fines of up to £20,000 per offence - even as a first time offender.

Yet many poor hygiene problems are very easy to fix. Food safety needn't cost a fortune, but it could save you one - as well as the humiliation of a very public exposure. To steer clear of trouble, it's vital to follow these three action points:

First, get your food temperature controls right. Fridge thermometers and probes can help you monitor but if you have large stocks of chilled foods on multiple sites, automatic temperature monitoring is essential.

Second, use effective food labelling and storage to avoid out-of-date food and ensure good stock rotation.

Third, use proper pest control. Seek professional help if necessary, practise good housekeeping and clear the clutter.

Appearing on TV or in court can be an eye-opening experience depending on your viewpoint. Just don't let it be your food safety wake-up call and the undesired catalyst for closing down your business.

Dr Lisa Ackerley is a food safety consultant and speaker at Food & Drink Expo 2010, which will take place on 21-24 March at the NEC in Birmingham.

Her talk, "How to Stay off TV and Out of Court," drawing on her TV appearances as a food safety adviser to the BBC's Rogue Restaurants and Watchdog, will take place in the Food & Drink Briefing Theatre at 11am on Tuesday 23 March.

10 WAYS TO STAY CLEAN

1. Cleaning - easy and cheap but requires regular attention and a structured approach

2. Ban cloths - they're bug superhighways. Use paper towels with a sanitiser

3. Stock rotation - it's critical. Have a simple, clear date coding system and avoid label pile-up

4. Personal hygiene - thorough, regular hand washing by food handlers is vital

5. Temperature control - keep cold foods below 5e_SDgrC and hot foods above 63e_SDgrC

6. Pest control - top of the list for enforcement action. Ignore at your peril

7. Training - all staff should know company policies and procedures

8. Staff facilities - are there enough basins, soap, hot water, paper towels, air dryers, lockers, toilets?

9. Food safety management system - put in place a simple, practical, bespoke manual

10. Records - document everything and don't leave any room for error

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