When it comes to serving food to customers, chefs have a duty of care to ensure no cross-contact or contamination takes place in their kitchens. Failure to do so can lead to illness and, in extreme cases, death. So how can restaurant chains educate staff around risk reduction? Mediaworks content writer Amy Hodgetts explores what employees working in commercial kitchens need to know.
The causes of cross-contamination
It is obvious that if cross-contamination takes place, customers can be in danger when consuming your food. It occurs when bacteria or other potentially harmful micro-organisms are unintentionally transferred from one place to another, in this case, from one food item to another.
It occurs in one of three ways: people to food, for example handling raw meat then proceeding to handle cooked meat without washing hands; food to food, such as if raw meat touches cooked meat in storage; and equipment to food, when a knife is used to cut raw meat, and then used to cut vegetables, for instance.
How is cross-contact different and why is it risky?
Cross-contact has more of a focus on allergies. This is when different foods mix proteins after coming into contact with each other. Instead of bacteria being the problem, as it is with cross-contamination, the problem here is the trace element of another food item being present.
Usually, the amount is so small that visible evidence of it cannot be seen. But for individuals who are highly allergic to certain food items, even a trace element of that food can be enough to trigger a serious reaction. Essentially, cross-contamination causes illness, while cross-contact causes allergic reactions.
The responsibility of commercial kitchen operators
When it comes to food handling, there is some level of responsibility in place for kitchens. According to the government website, complying with food safety laws requires businesses to follow food hygiene practices.
It outlines that it is the business’ responsibility to prevent any items that come into contact with food from transferring anything to the food substance, as well as having traceability of any such food contact materials.
Businesses are expected to create processes around the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point principles (HAACP). HAACP requires businesses to identify and avoid, remove or reduce any hazard to food, as well as monitoring any critical control points along the supply chain. Employers are also expected to train staff on hygiene practices, though this can be a formal programme or informal training.
Food preparation is key, as this can avoid any problems. The business should be able to inform the customer of any allergen risks in this instance.
It’s important for businesses to avoid cross-contamination. Key areas include:
– Clean preparation: avoid coughing, sneezing, or touching your face over food.
– Tend to any cuts: cuts should be covered by a brightly coloured waterproof plaster.
– Hand washing: before working with food, staff should wash their hands. Hands should also be washed prior to handling any food, and after handling or touching any raw meat, fish, eggs, or unwashed vegetables.
Hands should be washed after going to the toilet, using phones or touching light switches, door handles, cash registers or money.
When it comes to meat, it’s important not to rinse it. Some people believe washing raw meat rinses off bacteria, but it actually increases the risk of food poisoning.
The splashing water from the meat being rinsed under the tap can travel more than 50cm away from the source, which in turn, carries bacteria all around the room. Washing raw meat effectively spreads the germs around.
When equipment is hard done by, it’s time to replace it. Have separate equipment for each type of food; raw red meat should have its own set of cutting boards, containers and knives. Vegetables would have their own set, and raw poultry its own set, and so on.
A common method of implementation is to have a colour coded system in the kitchen, for example red utensils, boards and containers are used for raw meat, green for vegetables, and so on.
“Where proper cooking will usually remove all bacteria on contaminated food, cooking will not remove trace elements of food proteins that have been cross-contacted”
Bacteria can hide away in the crevices and cracks of cutting boards, and these should be replaced. Also, consider ‘hidden’ contact — can opener blades touch food when they enter a can, so don’t forget to clean these, too.
Of course, correct cleaning of utensils is a given. All work surfaces and equipment should be thoroughly cleaned after use. This means warm water, soap, the works — rinsing is not enough. Invest in good quality cleaning products and make sure the kitchen is more than rinsed down.
As well as this, you must store your equipment in the most convenient place possible. Unless you are using disposable items like polystyrene cups that can be thrown away, clean dishes and utensils, once cool, should be stored on clean shelves away from floor level. Avoid towel drying dishes as this can cause contamination from towels.
Cross-contamination can be hard to tackle, but there are ways to avoid it. Many of the same practices used for avoiding cross-contamination work for reducing the risk of cross-contact too.
Washing hands in the correct way, cleaning surfaces and equipment between each task and using separate utensils for different food types all help to reduce cross-contact.
So, when staff wash their hands after handling fish, for example, as recommended to do so to avoid cross-contamination, they will also reduce the risk of cross-contact of the fish proteins to the next food item they prepare.
It’s all about dealing with protein and bacteria. Where proper cooking will usually remove all bacteria on contaminated food, cooking will not remove trace elements of food proteins that have been cross-contacted.
This must be dealt with accordingly: where possible, use different counters and cooking equipment for different food types, such a separate grill for fish and another for meat. If this is not possible, you must make customers aware of this.
Consider the case of McDonald’s — recently the fast food chain has launched a wrap that is, ingredient-wise, vegan friendly. Though the food item itself contains no animal products, it is toasted in the same toaster that their other buns do, which contain milk. As such, there is a risk of cross-contact of milk proteins from the buns to the toaster and to the vegan wraps. The chain has marked the wraps as vegetarian rather than vegan in order to accommodate for this.
Educate your staff and put the right measures in place to protect your customers and kitchen. Ensuring your kitchen maintains a high level of attention to potential risks will keep your customers feeling safe.