Food is one of the most vulnerable aspects of any catering establishment. Food, in all its forms, raw, cooked or semi-finished, has a great potential to harbour disease-causing microorganisms and transmit harmful toxins. As the number of chefs or food handlers coming in contact with food increases, chances of it getting contaminated increase proportionately as well.
Processing helps significantly to minimise these microbes and enzymes, but since processed foods are sparingly available in the market, most food that is bought is either raw or semi-finished. These foods have a greater degree of risk attached to them, as they do not come with expiry dates and ideal storage instructions. Furthermore, they require more of handling and direct contact. Such foods may get spoilt post-harvest and continue to be contaminated at every stage before reaching the table.
In a survey conducted by Centre for Disease Control, in Atlanta, it was found that 25 per cent of the food borne diseases occur due to faulty cooking and mishandling. The figure could quadruple in a country like India where food safety figures last on the priority list of any food service establishment.
Unlike in the west, there is limited availability of processed foods and hygiene standards are not up to international standards. A lot of times, food borne diseases can be prevented by ensuring high levels of hygiene and sanitation. So also a very strong check must be kept on the ingredients that are coming in. Penny pinching does not help. The cheapest may not always be of the desired quality. A food service establishment must ensure that only reputed suppliers are entertained and all goods should be thoroughly inspected before they are received in the kitchen. Thus, any food hazard prevention programme should entail use of quality ingredients and prevention of disease producing bacteria and harmful chemicals.
Food hazards can be classified as:
Physical micro-organisms like bacteria, molds, and viruses thrive on protein, mineral, and moisture present in the food. Besides this, they need a good supply of oxygen and a pH nearing neutral. However, certain bacteria bring about food spoilage (decomposition – these do not require oxygen). Such foods must be immediately thrown out. Pathogenic or disease causing bacteria include Salmonella (meat and poultry), Trichinosis (pork) and Botulism (canned food). These are some of the common food illnesses caused by microorganisms. In addition to these, a host of infectious diseases like cholera, dysentery, and hepatitis can be transmitted through food. Microbes for their sheer size and numbers cannot be completely eliminated. But they can be rendered inactive. The following measures should be followed to prevent and reduce microbial activity in foods:
Storage: All foods that are more susceptible to microbial activities should be stored at frozen temperatures. All those that are less susceptible can be kept at room temperature, however to prevent cross contamination they should be stored (packed) with some space in between. Storage area should be kept clean and FIFO (First In First Out) method of stock keeping should be adopted. FIFO simply means that the most recent stock of meat and vegetables should be stored at the back and used last whereas older stock should be stored in front and used first. Thereby ensuring minimum time lag for any kind of microbial activity to occur.
Heating & Thawing: All foods should be heated equally. Safest service temperature is 72°C. All pork products should be cooked until the internal temperature reaches 68°C. Eggs should not be used raw or undercooked. Only portions to be served should be reheated. Repeated heating spoils the shelf life of foods. The ideal way to thaw meats is in the refrigerator at 4°C well wrapped. Very large pieces of meat should be portioned before storage as per the requirement.
Enzymes bring about autolysis in foods and over-ripening of fruits & vegetables. Appropriate storage temperatures can control enzymatic actions. Most enzymes do better when exposed to light and there is ample oxygen to bring about chemical changes. Therefore foods should be stored in a dark place and wherever possible be covered at all the times. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. They should not be overcrowded or stored near the walls or floors as this prevents air circulation, which brings about rapid deterioration in foods.
Chemical reactions include insecticide and pesticide residues, disinfectants used in cleaning kitchen surfaces, metals like zinc used in galvanised cookware. Most of these chemicals, in very small quantity, can cause considerable damage to the consumer. Sometimes toxic mushrooms are added to a pack of regular mushrooms. In order to prevent these chemicals from being a part of the food, one must wash all foods especially fruits and vegetables thoroughly. Use of zinc and aluminum in cookware should be kept to the minimum. Mushrooms should be bought from reputed suppliers only.
Pests include cockroaches, lizards, flies, bugs and the like. These creatures are unsightly and create a very bad impression in the minds of the customers. Flies transmit a lot of infectious diseases like cholera and typhoid. Regular pesticide helps control pests but it is very difficult to eliminate them. Foods must be covered and packed, at all times, to ensure that pests do not come in contact with the food.
Physical damage includes bruising and crushing of fruits and vegetables due to faulty storage. Freezer burns in case of meats are categorised as physical damages. Bruised fruits are highly susceptible to enzymatic and microbial growth. In order to prevent freezer burns, meats must be wrapped and kept in the freezer. All cut fruits and vegetables are more susceptible to enzymatic damage. These foods should be covered and refrigerated. Vegetables should be cut only when needed, as they tend to deteriorate and loose nutritional value.
Furthermore, high standards of hygiene and cleanliness need to be maintained. Cleanliness has two aspects, i.e. cleanliness of the work and service area and self-hygiene.
High standards of cleanliness should be maintained in the kitchen and service area. Staff must be made responsible for the cleanliness of their work areas. Weekly and spring-cleaning should be carried out thoroughly, and on a regular basis. All surfaces should be covered. Staff should wear clean, sanitised uniforms. They must wear a headgear at all times while in the kitchen. Uniforms, aprons and dusters should preferably be white in colour, and washed stain-free at all times. Guest and staff washrooms must be kept clean at all times, as these are places where transmission of diseases can take place. Staff nails should be trimmed, as long nails tend to accumulate dirt. Shoes must be clean and used only in the kitchen. Sanitary conditions are very essential to prevent any outbreak of disease. Likewise, a clean environment retards to a great extent the growth and spread of diseases.
Self-cleanliness comes with pride and a sense of satisfaction with one’s work. After all, if we take pride in the restaurant and all that goes with it, people will sense that we want everyone to have a safe and pleasant experience, whether they come to dine or to work.