Food safety is extremely important in order to reduce food-borne illness incidents in Australia. There are approximately four million cases of food-borne illness in Australia every year and many of these cases are linked to food safety issues. In particular, time and temperature control, storage of food and preventing contamination of food are three key factors of food safety that must be managed properly and trained on. Food businesses must understand these factors and the role they play in food safety, particularly now that food service is changing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Time and temperature control
Harmful pathogens need a certain time and temperature to be able to grow and cause food-borne illness in people. Pathogens thrive in temperatures between 5°C and 60°C which is known as the Temperature Danger Zone. Because of this, there are strict rules about how long food can be held in the Temperature Danger Zone. Ensuring that food — particularly high-risk foods — stay out of the Temperature Danger Zone is essential to preventing the growth of harmful bacteria and preventing food-borne illness. The 2 Hour / 4 Hour rule states that high-risk foods must be used or thrown out after two hours in the Temperature Danger Zone (5°C–60°C), and thrown out after four.
Some food businesses switched their business model to include takeaway and delivery due to government-mandated shutdowns — many of which had never conducted that type of service before the pandemic. Lack of knowledge and experience in time and temperature control can lead to serious food-borne illness incidents in these types of service.
Delivery requires that food be transported to the customer in a delivery container. Food businesses must ensure that delivery bags are able to keep hot food hot and cold food cold so that food out for delivery does not sit in the Temperature Danger Zone while being transported.
Takeaway meals are also on the rise since the pandemic began, with many customers coming to food businesses to purchase their meal and then take it somewhere else to eat. The risk in this situation comes from customers not eating their takeaway meal right away, but rather consuming it a significant time later. This means that the food can potentially be left sitting in the Temperature Danger Zone for some time before being consumed, effectively allowing for potential growth of harmful pathogens. Food businesses are encouraged to provide a warning to customers either verbally or in writing on a small card that is placed in the takeaway bag. Warning customers about the dangers of not consuming their takeaway meal right away can help to reduce the incidents of food-borne illness.
Proper food storage
Storing food properly is essential to keeping food safe for consumption. Food that is not stored properly and safely can become contaminated and lead to food-borne illness among customers.
Ensuring that food is stored properly begins at the receiving stage. When food is received, food businesses must ensure that the food is being delivered at the correct temperature. For example, refrigerated foods must be delivered at 5°C or less. Refrigerated food that is delivered at a temperature higher than 5°C must be rejected.
Next, storing food in a proper and timely manner is essential for food safety. Food businesses must store food in a particular order to ensure that high-risk foods are not kept in the Temperature Danger Zone for too long. There order is:
- High-risk foods (meat, seafood, poultry, dairy, etc.)
- Frozen foods
- Other refrigerated foods
- Dried goods
How long food is stored for depends on the type of food. It is essential that food businesses know the recommended food storage times in order to ensure that only food that is safe for consumption is kept on the premises. Learn more about recommended food storage times with the AIFS Recommended Food Storage Times Fact Sheet.
Eliminating food spoilage
Many food businesses had to deal with significant food waste and spoilage due to mandated closures. Not all food businesses were able to switch to a takeaway or delivery model and thus, they had to stop operations completely. This lead to lots of food spoilage due to food items being kept in storage long past their use-by date. Food spoilage is not only costly, but it can be life threatening. If spoiled food is not identified and dealt with properly, it can find its way into a cooked meal and make a customer extremely ill.
Thus, food businesses must be proactive when it comes to maintaining their food inventory, especially during the pandemic. Even though many food businesses have reopened to the public at the moment, outbreaks are still occurring and food businesses can be required to close their doors again at any time. Having a plan for the food during a closure is essential to keeping unsafe food out of the premises and preventing food-borne illness.
Learn more about ensuring food safety during a closure.
Preventing food contamination
In a food business, cross-contamination refers to the transfer of contaminants from a surface, object or person to food. A common cause of cross-contamination includes unsafe food handling practices by Food Handlers that allow dangerous bacteria, viruses and parasites to contaminate food. When these pathogens are consumed, they can cause food-borne illness and make customers very ill.
Food Handlers can contaminate food by improperly handling high-risk foods. For example, cross-contamination can occur if a Food Handler handles raw eggs and then prepares a ready-to-eat sandwich without washing their hands. Pathogens from the raw eggs can be transferred to the fresh sandwich ingredients which are then consumed by an unsuspecting customer.
The best way to prevent cross-contamination from happening in a food business is through food safety training and education. Ensuring that all Food Handlers within the business are up-to-date on their food safety training is key.
Chemical contamination of food occurs when chemicals get into food. This contamination can make customers ill when chemically contaminated food is consumed. This has always been a food safety threat, but it is even more concerning in the COVID-19 pandemic. Cleaning and sanitising requirements for businesses have been increased which is leading to more chemical use throughout the premises. Equipment and food preparation surfaces are being cleaned and sanitised more regularly and if not done properly, can contaminate food. Food businesses must ensure that proper cleaning and sanitising protocols are followed at all times.
Many food businesses are also providing hand sanitiser to staff and customers in order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The problem with hand sanitiser is it can cause chemical contamination of food if it is not allowed to dry properly on hands. For this reason, hand sanitiser is generally not recommended to be used by Food Handlers. It is recommended that hand sanitiser only be used when proper hand washing cannot be conducted. Food businesses must ensure that all staff are trained on the proper use of hand sanitiser.
How food businesses can maintain food safety
Be inspection ready
Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) are responsible for ensuring that food businesses are adhering to legislation. It is important for food businesses to be aware that an EHO can enter the food business any time for an inspection and can issue infringment notices on: failure to store, process, display and transport food properly; lack of cleanliness and sanitisation of the premises and equipment; and failure to keep the required records on the premises. Food businesses must always ensure that they are conducting operations lawfully and meeting all requirements and standards. This is especially important these days with new requirements for operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Have a Food Safety Program
Australian food businesses are required to create and implement a Food Safety Program in the business. The Food Safety Program is used to control hazards within the business and to prevent health risks such as food-borne illnesses. A Food Safety Program must adhere to food safety standards set out in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. Check out the AIFS Guide to Building a Food Safety Program for more information on building an implementing a Food Safety Program.
Ensure food safety training
In Australia, the Food Standards Code requires anyone who works with food to be trained in food safety. This means that anyone who handles, prepares, serves or transports food, or cleans food equipment is considered a Food Handler and must be trained in food safety. Learn more about the nationally recognised AIFS Food Handler Course.
At least one certified Food Safety Supervisor is also required in food businesses in most states and territories in Australia. A Food Safety Supervisor manages and takes responsibility for food safety in the food business. In states and territories where it is not a legal requirement, a Food Safety Supervisor is strongly recommended to ensure compliance with Australian food safety laws and standards. Learn more about the nationally recognised AIFS Food Safety Supervisor Course.