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Food safety and foodservice – an unavoidable relationship, writes Richard Bennett

Photo: WFIU Public Radio / Flikr CC BY-NC 2.0

The question was posed: Is food safety the weakest link in the foodservice sector? That was the question requiring an answer at the recent PMA A-NZ Fresh Connections Foodservice Forum in May. Is food safety the most critical aspect of foodservice, or are issues like raw material supply, product innovation, packaging, shelf life and logistics, higher priorities?

Sadly, the facts speak for themselves, and food safety has to be right at the top, even if it’s not alone. “From 2007 to 2009, annual OzFoodNet data has consistently indicated that, on average, approximately two-thirds of all reported foodborne illness outbreaks in Australia involved food prepared in retail/food service settings e.g. restaurants, takeaways, commercial caterers, camps, cruise/airline, national franchised fast food restaurants and delicatessens” (Office of Best Practice Regulation 2011). That’s a sobering quote to start with.

Attendees didn’t need reminding but the foodservice industry just happens to be a combination of factors that make the OzFoodNet findings unsurprising:

  • Foodservice often/mostly uses higher risk produce such as leafy salads, tomatoes, melons, sprouts, etc that are often eaten raw.
  • These products are often prepared and consumed in combination with other higher risk foods such as chicken, cheese, fish, mayonnaise, etc.
  • Foodservice products can be supplied to vulnerable consumers such as aged care facilities, child care centres, hospitals, resulting in a higher number life threatening cases.
  • They can also be supplied to individuals in contained living and dining areas where the risk of rapid spread is high, such as cruise ships and prisons.
  • These factors are complicated by product shelf-life expectations that are pushed to the limits.

According to the US FDA, there are five main risk factors for foodservice that contribute to the need for high care processing facilities.  The first is the absolute need for safe food sources. How does the approved supplier program stack up? Do you know your supplier’s supplier, and so on? Recent SGS research presented at the GFSI Conference indicated that only 25% of complete supply chains are risk assessed and that supply chains are characterised by poor collaboration and communication. One major food manufacturer elaborated on their research of their olive oil supply chain, which revealed six tiers and over 250 vendor sites, many times more than they expected. Clearly, that has to improve, to improve risk management.

The second risk factor is personal hygiene. Contamination can be prevented when it is unintentional and there are a growing number of cases where it is intentional. Increasing ‘casualisation’ of the workforce, which results in staff turning up for work when they are ill because they are not paid for sick days, is also a big contributor to this factor. This factor includes the usual bacterial contamination and also human to food viral contamination such as norovirus and hepatitis A virus. Personal hygiene needs a concerted effort in staff training and attitude improvement to reinforce preferred behaviours.

Other top risk factors for foodservice include cooking thoroughly and keep hot food hot, and cool it quick and keep cold food cold. The ongoing issue of cross contamination, particularly adding high risk raw ingredients to already-cooked food, after the kill step has been completed, also ranks highly.

There are also a number of in-house foodservice trends that, while creating innovative menus and enhancing transparency, are also blurring the line between safe foodservice and unsafe meals. New restaurant experiences with new ingredients, new cooking methods and new techniques add up to new risks, which need to be assessed before being put into practice. Some chefs want to be farmers too, adding another dimension to risk as they pursue the unique, the special and the niche. Some chefs are also taking ‘home made’ to a new level. Actually, it’s a reinvention of an old level, of in-house curing, smoking, pickling and using what’s growing in their backyards, often without understanding the food safety risks they are introducing.

All these factors combine to reinforce the need for food safety to be part of the DNA of each and every foodservice business. Businesses need to understand the risk factors that can jeopardise the effectiveness of their processes and hence the safety of their products. Managers need to be proactive and preventive, not reactive. Identify trends in food safety KPIs by constant monitoring. It’s not much use using audit CARs as your only data points for continuous improvement. Measure and plot the factors that matter such as inwards goods, critical times and temperatures, routine and verification test results and shelf life studies. These will provide better results, help management make better decisions and give the team and customers greater confidence.

So, in answer to the original question, food safety can be the biggest weakness in the foodservice sector, and there are plenty of reasons why it might be. It’s the food category with perhaps the most dangerous combination of risk factors for foodborne illness. The fact that we aspire to produce safe food and have the knowledge and skills to do so means that contamination is preventable and food safety doesn’t have to be the weakest link. All we need is to overcome what is the biggest hurdle, having the right attitude throughout the business, from top to bottom, to produce the healthiest and safest food 24/7/365.