Safe Food

Prepare and handle food safely

In this section we learn how to prepare and store food safely. We cover:

Temperature control

We review all the temperatures you need to know in the kitchen; cooking, hot holding, cooling, ambient and storage.

Separating raw and ready-to-eat roods

Find out the importance of keeping raw foods away from ready-to-eat foods and learn all about cross contamination.

Stock control

We learn the importance of choosing good suppliers, checking our deliveries, and storing food safely.

Temperature control

It’s important to understand that what temperature you keep any fresh foods at will significantly impact on their safeness and how long they last. The key with any food is to start with the manufacturer’s instructions. These will tell you how the food must be stored and if any treatment is required before it is safe to eat.

    There are a few key temperatures and times you have to remember, so learn these and make sure you stick to them. Don't worry if they are confusing to start with, we will look at them in more detail below.

  1. Cooking: 75°C for 30 seconds.
  2. Hot holding: Minimum 63°C or maximum 2 hours.
  3. Cooling: Less than 90 minutes.
  4. Ambient: Maximum 4 hours.
  5. Storage: 8°C or below in the fridge, -18°C or below in the freezer.

Remember though, certain foods may have different instructions provided by the manufacturer. For example, ice cream may be kept slightly warmer than –18°C to keep it soft for serving. Fish that produces scombroid toxin may need to be kept less than 3°C to prevent the toxin forming, canned foods may be safe at room temperature when sealed but the product then needs to go into the fridge once opened – so always check the manufacturer’s instructions!

OK, so they’re the figures you need to memorise, but let's look at these each in more detail so that we can understand why these figures are important.

Cooking foods safely

Some foods we cook just to make them taste nicer, like carrots for example. But there are a lot of foods that we cook so that they are safe to eat. Meat is the most obvious one. The reason is that meat, for example, can be contaminated with harmful micro-organisms that when eaten can make us sick, or even kill us. These pathogens can be all through certain meats and that is why we must cook them thoroughly.

Food Safety Top Tip

Heard about the pink burger problem? Well, it has caused lots of issues because there are a lot of fundamental misunderstandings about raw beef. When a cow is slaughtered, all of the harmful micro-organisms cover the outside of the meat. So, if you take a slice of beef – a steak for example – and then cook it, you only have to cook the outside of the slice to kill any pathogens present.

However, burgers aren’t just a slice of beef. They are a slice of beef all minced up. So, when you mince the beef you mix all the pathogens on the outside through the middle of the burger. Now you need to cook the burger all the way through to make sure it’s safe! There are ways to get around this but it’s a level above the basic food business – it’s a specialist process.

We therefore need to cook foods to a certain temperature to make sure we kill all the harmful micro-organisms that might be present. The easiest way to do this is to cook the centre of any food to 75°C for at least 30 seconds. Realistically, once a food has reached 75°C you don’t need to watch until 30 seconds have passed. The food will probably rise above this temperature a bit, and the process of taking it off the heat and preparing it will be long enough; once you take it off the heat the temperature will not suddenly drop, it will carry on cooking.

You can measure temperature using a temperature probe, or you can visually check that foods are thoroughly cooked. Food is thoroughly cooked when it is steaming hot all the way through, or you can check certain foods to make sure they have changed colour and the juices run clear. For example, beef will go brown and chicken will go white once completely cooked.

The key point is, make sure your foods are thoroughly cooked and if probing them, that they are a minimum of 75°C. The EHO will want and expect you to know what temperature you are cooking your foods to if you are probing them.

If you are reheating foods, again 75°C for 30 seconds should be sufficient. In Scotland the law is more stringent for reheating foods that have been cooked and cooled on site, and they must reach a temperature of 82°C.

Hot holding foods safely

Hot holding food is keeping foods hot for a period of time. A great example of this is doing a Sunday carvery, or an all-you-can-eat buffet. You keep the foods warm over a period of time to serve to customers when they want it. It’s important to note this process can be in the kitchen or in the dining area. For example, you might be keeping breakfast items or a curry sauce warm in the kitchen awaiting the next order. The rules will not change – if you are hot holding foods you must comply with the temperature requirements.

Why? Well, because most bacteria absolutely love warm temperatures. It’s why we keep foods in the fridge in the first place. Start to let bacteria sit in temperatures above freezing and they will start to grow, slowly at first, then very quickly, before finally it gets too hot and we start to kill them (we call this cooking!).

So, let’s take the example of our buffet food. We decide to keep it warm and customers can help themselves. We stick it under some heat lamps and the food sits for 4 hours at 54°C. This is a disaster! We are leaving the food at the perfect temperature for bacteria to grow and we are running a real risk of poisoning all our customers! So, how do we control this?

We have a couple of choices on how to hot hold food safely. Firstly, and the easiest solution, is to keep the food at or above 63°C. At this temperature it’s too hot for bacteria to grow and we can keep our buffet above 63°C as long as we like. The downside to this is that the food is still (just about) cooking. Leave it at 63°C for too long and it may start to lose quality and/or dry out.

Secondly, we could keep the food less than 63°C, but we can only do this for a maximum of 2 hours (note, in Scotland this 2 hour exemption rule does not exist in the legislation). In 2 hours, bacteria can’t really grow enough to cause us any real problems. Any longer than this and the numbers are too risky though – so 2 hours is the absolute limit set in law. The positive of this is the food isn’t going to overcook or dry out. The negative to this approach is we need to be able to demonstrate to the EHO that we have kept to the 2 hours limit. This means checks and paperwork to prove we have done them. It’s not too bad, but it does mean more checks are required!

Whatever approach you decide on, you will of course be considering how long the food will actually last. If it is all going to sell out in 30 minutes then with just some basic paperwork you don’t need to worry about what temperature it is. It will have sold out long before there are any concerns!

You will also be considering what temperature your customers want the food to be, particularly if it is self-service. Keep it too cool and they’ll be complaining it’s cold!

Finally, be aware that you can’t just increase the temperature every 2 hours and then let it slip down again. The 2 hour exemption is for one time only! After 2 hours hot holding below 63°C you need to either throw the food away, cool it to below 8°C or get it above 63°C and keep it there.

Food Safety Top Tip

Stir the food before taking the temperature and stir regularly whilst it is on display. Without going back to Science class, your pot of food will be a different temperature in different sections of the pot. Ever notice how you will see boiling bubbles on parts of the surface and not others? Or when your soup is steaming but when you take a mouthful it’s only lukewarm? There is a reason for this and you can Google it if you’re interested, but for food safety purposes you just need to know that you need to stir the heat through the food and balance the temperature across the pot.

Cooling foods safely

Sometimes you will want to cook foods and then cool them down, maybe because they are best served cold or maybe you will reheat a portion to a customer order. Just like we have discussed in cooking and hot holding, bacteria love warm temperatures to grow. If we take ages to cool our foods through the warm temperatures, we are giving the bacteria the perfect conditions to multiply in the food. What is important to note is that reheating the food will kill a lot of pathogens, but it doesn’t kill all of them. Some bacteria form spores that are heat resistant, so no amount of cooking will save you once these have formed.

The law says to cool foods as quickly as possible. For almost all foods it is recommended it takes no longer than 90 minutes. This is the magic number for most businesses. There is little reason why the process should take longer. There are easy tricks to make food cool quickly; break it into smaller portions, stir it regularly, put the pot/pan/tray on a bed of ice water, etc. I have seen a vat of boiling chilli cooled in 20 minutes using these techniques, so there is no excuse.

    Typical mistakes with cooling foods that you need to avoid:

  1. Don’t leave foods to cool overnight or between split shifts, these time periods are often too long (i.e. longer than 90 minutes).
  2. Don’t leave foods to cool in the beer cellar, unless your cellar is clean and the food is covered. Even then, you will still need to move the food after 90 minutes. Your beer cellar is not a giant fridge. Fridges need to be kept 8°C or below, a typical cellar is 13°C and so too warm!
  3. Don’t put hot foods straight in the fridge to cool. Unless you have a powerful walk-in chiller, fridges can’t handle this and what you inadvertently end up doing is raising the temperature of the whole fridge too high! Now, instead of just trying to cool one food you’re having to worry about cooling a whole fridge of food!

Food Safety Top Tip

If your business serves rice or pasta, you’ve probably had the EHO ask you in detail about how you manage the temperature of it. That’s because rice and pasta can grow certain bacteria called bacillus cereus that when held at warm temperatures after cooking, grow spores that are heat resistant. Even reheating the food will therefore not kill these spores.

EHOs constantly find issues in restaurants that cook these foods in large batches. They then leave them to cool for hours at room temperature, or they leave them on the side at room temperature during the service period. Solution: cool the foods within 90 minutes and store in the fridge, or keep them hot above 63°C.

Keeping foods safely at ambient room temperature

If you are leaving foods at room temperature for sale, there is a 4 hour limit, after which food must either be thrown away, or placed back into the fridge. Note, this is a one-time rule! You cannot put food out for 4 hours, cool it in the fridge, then stick it out again.

So why does this rule exist? It is the same as when you are hot holding; keeping foods in the danger zone enables harmful micro-organisms to multiply to dangerous levels. The hot holding rule is a maximum of 2 hours because you are keeping foods at a warmer temperature than the room, so the time needs to be shorter. At room temperature, you have 4 hours maximum time!

Let’s look at an example of this rule in action. Typically, it is used for a cold buffet, at a funeral or birthday party for example. The food business makes some sandwiches, sausage rolls, etc., and lays them out for the duration of the event. They sit at room temperature and people will help themselves. If the event goes on all day, the food could be sat there for hours. After 4 hours, it needs to be removed and either kept in the fridge or disposed of.

It’s important to realise what foods are included in this rule; they have to be high risk foods! For example, items such as crisps and nuts are not included, as they do not need to be kept cold to control growth of pathogens. Items such as dips and sandwiches are included. How do you tell? Well, if it needs to be kept in the fridge normally, then it is high risk!

Food Safety Top Tip

A food that constantly gets misunderstood when considering ambient storage is fruits and vegetables. When fruit and veg are whole and have not been prepared, they can be kept at room temperature. But, as soon as you prepare these foods, i.e. cut-up fruit and veg, you must keep it under temperature control. This is because you are exposing the inside of the food to micro-organisms in the air.

Storing foods safely

Keeping foods in the fridge slows down the growth of bacteria significantly. In England, the maximum temperature a fridge can be is 8°C. You and your staff must know this temperature, as if you do not, how can you be making sure your fridge stays legally cold enough? Commercial fridges often have an electronic temperature display on the front of them, but these are notorious for being inaccurate and should not be relied upon. It may be easy to just check this display, but as they can be wrong so often it just isn’t worth the risk.

    To accurately monitor the fridge temperature, I recommend one of these two options:

  1. Buy an internal temperature monitor to keep inside the fridge. This will be far more accurate.
  2. Keep a cup of water or block of jelly in the fridge and use a temperature probe to test its temperature.

Food Safety Top Tip

Unless you have invested in very good fridges, you may find that certain parts are colder than others. Don’t get caught out! Test different parts of the fridge and find the warmest section, then monitor the temperature here. If the warmest part of the fridge is below 8°C, then you can be confident the rest of the fridge is too!

Freezers should be kept -18°C or colder. In truth, as long as the food is actually frozen, it is cold enough. Keeping it -18°C will help protect you against fluctuations in temperature; when the freezer is on defrost mode or the door is being opened for deliveries etc., your food will remain frozen through all of this. Conversely, if you keep your freezer just cold enough, say -13°C, your food may start to defrost when the freezer is put under stress and this will cause you problems.

Wherever you store food it should be kept clean. This includes any store rooms, shelving, fridges, freezers, etc. The reason for this is to minimise the risk of food becoming contaminated, either with dirt, dust or other foods. You may think a bit of flour around the store room is no big deal, but for someone with a wheat allergy it can be very serious. You have to consider where you store your foods so that allergy ingredients are kept separate.

The EHO will not look kindly on unclean storage areas so make sure you have a regular schedule to clean them. The best method is to clean-as-you-go so that you don’t get caught out.

Separating raw and ready-to-eat foods

If you have worked in the food industry for more than five minutes, you will have heard the phrase cross contamination. This is a very important part of food safety as it is a danger that is difficult to visualise and can be very serious.

When food is off it will likely smell. When food isn’t cooked properly it is cold or you can see that it hasn’t changed colour. Understanding cross contamination is more difficult as it involves imagining you are able to see microscopic organisms in your kitchen and having a knowledge of where they may be.

When Things Go Wrong

A fast food takeaway owner was given six months prison sentence (suspended) and six months tagging order, after Salmonella bacteria was found by the EHOs from Walsall Council on a doner kebab cutter, a chopping board and a dirty sponge.

Poor management of cross contamination risks can result in dangerous bacteria spreading all over your kitchen and putting your customers at risk.

EHOs can take swabs of your equipment to see if any dangerous micro-organisms are present where they shouldn’t be, i.e. where they may contaminate ready-to-eat foods.

Ready-to-eat foods are foods that can be eaten without anything further happening to them. Any foods that are not ready-to-eat are considered raw. The obvious raw foods are uncooked meats but may also include unwashed fruit and vegetables, frozen chips, uncooked rice, etc. A key thing to remember is that raw foods are not safe to eat yet, ready-to-eat foods are! Raw foods may be contaminated with pathogens, so you need to keep them away from ready-to-eat foods. Let us explore this with an example.

You use a work surface to prepare your burgers. You mix up your mince meat with a mix of spices and binding agent and shape the patties for cooking to order. You put these in the fridge and then grab some lettuce to chop up on the worktop where you just prepared your burgers. Stop! This is a potential source of cross contamination!

Your uncooked mince meat is a raw food and may have harmful micro-organisms. When you used your worktop to prepare the burgers you may have spread these micro-organisms all over this area.

This may have been through that bit of mince meat that fell on the side, or from splashing the juice as you mixed the ingredients together – the fact is you cannot see the micro-organisms but they can still be there. Now when you bring your lettuce over to prepare this is a ready-to-eat food. Those micro organisms may now cross contaminate onto your lettuce and be eaten by your customer when you serve the lettuce up!

What else may have been contaminated? After you used your hands to mix up your burger mince, did you then touch the fridge handle? Did you wash your hands before touching the lettuce? Have you managed to contaminate your hands with bacteria from the mince meat and then spread it across the kitchen? What happens when your chef turns up later, opens the fridge by touching the contaminated door handle and then starts to cut up the tiramisu for desserts?

You can’t see the micro-organisms moving around the kitchen but very quickly you can have cross contamination occurring due to how you prepare your food.

Prevent cross contamination

The trick is to be aware every time you are handling raw foods and to think about how to do it safely. This becomes part of your food safety management system and forms an important part of your paperwork.

    Let's look at what steps you can take to minimise the risk of cross contamination:

  1. Keep things separate. The easiest way to reduce the risk of cross contamination is to prepare raw foods and ready to eat foods in separate parts of the kitchen. You may have a separate worktop, separate fridges, separate sinks and separate utensils. You still need to think about moving between areas and not bringing the harmful micro-organisms with you, but keeping the areas separate makes your food safety a lot easier to manage. If you have a smaller kitchen this may not be possible though.
  2. Prepare foods at different times of the day. If you haven’t got the space for separate raw and ready-to-eat foods, you should prepare the foods at different times of the day and have a two stage clean in between. You may prepare all your raw foods in the morning, such as dicing the chicken and making the burgers, and then in the afternoon use the same area to prepare all your ready-to-eat foods such as salads and desserts. In between these you will have to thoroughly clean the area of course – you can learn how to do this in the cleaning guide section.

Whatever you decide to do, you must make sure you have enough space and facilities available to prepare your food safely. If you have a small kitchen or limited equipment, then the food you produce will have to be planned and/or limited accordingly. You cannot prepare foods in a way that may make them unsafe; you do not have a licence to make whatever food you desire. You have to have the ability to do it safely.

    Here are some examples of when food businesses get this wrong:

  1. Dual use vacuum packer. If you have a vacuum packer you may only use it for either raw or ready-to-eat foods. It cannot be used for both. This is because you cannot adequately clean the internal operating parts of a vacuum packer without a competent engineer being able to strip it apart.

    Make sure you clearly label any vacuum packer you have as either “raw use only” or “ready-to-eat use only” and make sure staff members follow this. Failure to do so may result in a prohibition notice and a hefty fine from the EHO, and your poor food hygiene rating will be the cherry on top.

  2. Preparing raw and ready-to-eat foods on chopping boards near to each other. Chopping boards too close together is not acceptable. Preparation of raw foods is messy work. Bits of meat get spread around and juices splash – it’s the nature of the beast. Any ready-to-eat foods in the area are at high risk of being contaminated and it only takes a few micro-organisms impossible to see with the naked eye.
  3. Store raw foods above and ready-to-eat foods in the fridge. This is seen by Environmental Health Officers all the time. Open the fridge up and see a nice juicy raw steak on the top shelf and on the shelf underneath the pre-prepared salad garnish. There is a high risk that juices, drops of condensation, etc., may fall from the raw food and onto the ready-to-eat food. Always store raw below any ready-to-eat.

    Plan the layout of your fridges, use stickers on the door – whatever you do just make sure that when items are stored in the fridge, they do not cause a cross contamination risk. And yes, the confusion is not helped by domestic fridges where the salad drawers are at the bottom. This is a ridiculous design decision that has stuck but you’re not at home, you’re running a food business and there are laws you need to comply with.

  4. Using the same chopping boards for raw and ready-to-eat foods. Fortunately, this dangerous food practice is rarely seen nowadays, but it does still happen. Typically it occurs when a chef uses a wooden chopping board on the work surface, unbeknown to them that a different chef had just chopped up raw food on it 30 minutes earlier.

    If you prepare raw food on a chopping board, you cannot clear it away and then start preparing the ready-to-eat food on the same chopping board. The board will be covered in potentially harmful micro-organisms that will then be transferred onto the ready-to-eat food. You cannot see them, but they are there in the millions.

    A practical way to prevent this is through using colour-coded chopping boards. If the red board is always for raw foods, then whether it’s left on the side or not, the next chef shouldn’t then pick it up to start slicing the cheese as it’s the wrong coloured board and they will know that it is dangerous.

Food Safety Top Tip

Colour-coded equipment has been around for decades and the reason for that is that it is so useful. It helps to differentiate equipment for raw and ready-to-eat foods providing a useful barrier.

Make sure you review your equipment for any damage whenever you use it. A classic mistake is to let chopping boards become akin to the Grand Canyon, providing lovely breeding grounds for bacteria in hard to clean divots.

Plastic equipment is often melted accidentally and then never replaced, potentially leading to pieces of plastic coming off into customers food. If equipment or utensils are damaged, repair or replace them.

If there is a risk they may contaminate food, throw them away immediately. The EHO will shake their head in disappointment if they find damaged equipment or utensils in your kitchen.

Stock control

You need to make sure the food you are purchasing to use is safe, and that it is kept safely stored whilst in your business. We have talked about temperature control and keeping raw and ready-to-eat foods separate, but we also have to consider any use by date of the food and any containers we store food in.

Food Safety Top Tip

It is important to remember that any food stored within your food business, unless it is clearly labelled as not being for sale, is considered for your customers. What does this mean? Well, say you have left your own personal lunch in the fridge for a few days and it is mouldy. You never intended to sell that food as it was your lunch – but – as it is in your food business, the EHO must consider that it is for your customers. Have food in your kitchen that isn’t for sale, then label it clearly “NOT FOR SALE”.

Deliveries

You need to protect food from the moment it arrives until you hand it to the customer. This starts with deliveries. As a food business operator you need to ensure the food you are being supplied with is safe.

The reality is that there are unfortunately illegal food suppliers out there, just like there are fake suppliers of any product. When buying clothes from a market, you may find you are buying a fake Armani top, with a dodgy logo and made of cheap materials. Food is no different, purchase from an unscrupulous trader out the back of a white van, and you may find the meat isn’t what you thought it was and that it hasn’t been kept safely.

If you serve this to your customer and they are sick, they won’t be blaming the white van man, they’ll be blaming you!

Put deliveries away as quickly as possible. If the EHO turns up and a bunch of food is sitting out of temperature control, they will want to know how long it has been sat there for. It shouldn’t be more than 30 minutes without a seriously good excuse.

Suppliers

It is therefore well worth your time making sure your suppliers are reliable and that the food they give you is safe. You can’t send every beef burger off to the lab to make sure it is made of cow instead of horse, but you can carry out some simple checks.

Check the temperature, date and condition of the food you are purchasing. Any food that is out of temperature or out-of-date should be returned immediately. If you have already accepted the food and the driver has gone, separate it from other foods and mark it clearly as ‘NOT FOR SALE’. You can then follow this up with your supplier to return it for a refund.

Food Safety Top Tip

Don’t accept food deliveries from door-to-door salesman. You need to do your research before trusting a supplier. If they’re offering you a bargain there will be a reason for it and it’s unlikely to be a good one. Before using a supplier carry out some research; look at their website, find out their details on companies house. The prices can be competitive but if they’re too good to be true, they may not be legitimate.

Storage

When storing your stock, make sure all areas are kept clean. Products that can be kept at room temperature must be kept in areas that are not damp. Foods should be covered to prevent anything falling into them, from dust to paint to hairs to other foods. This rule applies to any equipment that comes into contact with food too. Any pots, plates, bottles, utensils, chopping boards, etc., that you are going to use with food must be stored in a clean place so that they are not at risk of becoming contaminated and then cross contaminating your food.

Storage containers need to be of food-grade quality and in good condition. Non-food containers can leach chemicals from the plastic into the food. If you decant products make sure the best before or use by date goes with them.

Basic stock control is to put new products behind old ones in storage, so that those at the front expire first. Anything with a use by date needs to be checked daily, things with a best before date may be checked weekly or even fortnightly. Check out the paperwork section to consider what records may be kept of these checks.

Make sure you do not store any non-food products, such as cleaning chemicals, near to food. If, for example, you have your bleach stored on the shelf alongside your bags of sugar, and your bleach container has a small leak, it may leach into the bag of sugar before you have any clue what’s happening. The EHO will have zero sympathy for you in this situation – the chemical should be absolutely nowhere near any food in the first place!

Food Safety Top Tip

Use good quality containers to store your prepared foods. Too many times do food businesses miss out on a five star rating because they are using poor quality containers that split and chip, usually ice cream tubs. Damaged containers can result in pieces of plastic coming off and contaminating food – not good food safety and not good for customers and your business reputation. Whichever containers you use you must ensure they are food-grade quality and in good condition.