Opinion: Dr Ruth Petran
Invisible threats is a commonly-used phrase when describing foodborne illnesses, but how do you deal with something the human eye cannot see?
Typically caused by biological hazards, bacteria, parasites, fungi, viruses, prions and toxins, foodborne illnesses are not new issues. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), developing countries are more at risk of foodborne illnesses due to limited disease surveillance, prevention, and control strategies. Perhaps then, it is not surprising that the MENA region ranks third — behind sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia — in foodborne disease levels.
An outbreak of foodborne disease often spreads rapidly and with potentially dire consequences — think kidney failure, arthritis, or even brain and nerve damage. That’s why food handlers, whether at home or in the foodservice sector, have a great responsibility to maintain not only good hygiene in the workplace, but also their own personal hygiene.
The human factor is the most important element in avoiding contamination and the spread of foodborne disease. While the responsibility for food safety lies with us all, food industry workers must be even more well-informed of foodborne illnesses, the spread of germs and how certain infectious diseases arise. Failure to do so can pose severe risks to businesses. Outlets serving contaminated food, or brands selling disease-carrying bacteria can suffer irreparable damage to reputation and loss in revenues, not to mention hefty fines from municipalities and food safety watchdogs.
There are some easy tips to remember when working as a food handler which protect the employee, the public, and the business:
Keep It Clean: Hand hygiene is essential for anyone harvesting, handling, or preparing food. Germs can easily be transferred by dirty hands. F&B operators across the entire food supply chain must understand how to properly wash their hands and do so frequently. They should also stay at home when ill with gastro-intestinal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea and protect food from open cuts on their hands. Using gloves or utensils to avoid bare hand contact with food can help prevent the transfer of germs. Similarly, food such as vegetables and fruits must be thoroughly rinsed before cutting and serving. Proper staff training is critical.
Cross-Contamination: If preparation areas are not cleaned and sanitised properly, bacteria from contaminated food or personnel can linger on surfaces and spread easily. Ensuring food preparation areas are accurately cleaned and sanitised before use helps protect food from bacteria which cause foodborne illnesses. When using the same cutting surface for different foods, clean and sanitise between tasks. It is better practice to simply colour-code cutting areas for different foods.
Common Sense: While our eyes cannot see the invisible threat of harmful micro-organisms, we should be mindful of where and when contamination commonly takes place. Temperature and time are crucial factors in any food handling operation. Contaminating micro-organisms are more likely to grow at temperatures between 4-60°C, so food temperatures should be controlled and maintained outside the ‘danger zone’.
Get a Thermometer: Raw food and fresh produce can contain bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses. F&B operators cannot depend on sight, smell, or taste alone to determine if food has reached the proper (cooked) temperature necessary to kill harmful bacteria. Use of a properly calibrated food thermometer is critical.
Ecolab helps businesses and employees ensure effective food safety processes through effective cleaning and sanitising products, programmes and services that mitigate risks by reducing or eliminating foodborne illnesses. Ecolab solutions have ensured the quality and safety of more than a quarter (27%) of the world’s processed food at 5,000 international food and beverage plants. And with Ecolab clients serving 45 billion restaurant meals annually, our products and services support health and hygiene management by cleaning 31 billion hands per year.
Dr. Ruth Petran is the vice president, food safety and public health at Ecolab.