Food Safety for School Canteens

Food safety is especially important in schools since children can be more susceptible to food borne illnesses.


June 29, 2016 By Sally Santacruz

Food safety is especially important in schools since children can be more susceptible to food borne illnesses. The Australia Better Health Initiative focuses on creating a safer and healthier environment for school children. Though a large part of this initiative is for healthier eating, it does also deal with food safety as well. It is definitely true that kids need to learn how to eat healthy at a young age for a better adulthood, but they also need to be able to eat foods in canteens without illness.

The Truth About Food Borne Illness

There are millions of cases of food borne illnesses in Australia each year. They result in more than one hundred deaths and hundreds of thousands of doctors’ appointments. Anyone can become ill from illnesses associated with bacteria or viruses in foods. Some groups are much more susceptible: the elderly, those with immune compromising diseases, and children. Kids can be especially in danger of food borne illness, so school canteens must take extra precautions.

The Importance of Good Hygiene

Working in a school canteen means you need to keep food safety in mind at all times. To begin with, your hygiene plays a big role in how you keep foods safe for children to eat. Always, always wash your hands before you touch food, before and after you prepare meals, and after you have served the children. Additionally, always wash your hands thoroughly after using the toilet and before going back into the kitchen. You can’t just run your hands under the tap either.

To properly wash your hands, make sure the water is warm. Then, soap up your hands thoroughly, being sure to get between the fingers and under the nails. Then rinse thoroughly and dry with paper towels, not a towel. Fabric will harbour bacteria and can transfer it to you thus transferring it back to the food.

A few other hygiene steps you need to take include:

  • Never prepare food if you have been ill unless you have medical clearance
  • Do not work while ill, especially if you have a food borne illness
  • Never allow your hair to hang over or touch foods. It should be tied back or secured with a net.
  • Use proper protective clothing that is clean. Never reuse dirty aprons

Personal hygiene is an important step toward food safety in the food canteen. If you prepare foods while your hands are dirty or you are ill, then you could be taking risks with the health of the children.

Keeping the Canteen Clean

The second part of food safety in a school canteen is keeping the space itself clean and free of bacteria. Never allow the room to become a habitat for pests of any type. They spread germs and will be attracted to any foods that are left out or open. You should use food safe pest control, keep doors and windows sealed and shut and dispose of garbage properly.

Chopping boards should be properly sanitised and cleaned before use. Never use the same chopping board for meats and other foods like fruits and vegetables. Even if you are chopping vegetables of different types, you should clean and sanitise the board between each use.

Food storage is extremely important. When foods are waiting for use, they can be a breeding ground for bacteria if not stored properly. All items should be kept in sealed containers and promptly refrigerated before they reach the dangerous temperature zone.

  • In the refrigerator, the meats should be sealed carefully and always placed on the bottom shelf. Meats should never be placed on a higher shelf where juices could drip and contaminate other foods.
  • Food that is meant to be hot should be kept hot the whole time it is being served. Afterwards, it should be put in the refrigerator for storage within two hours of when it started cooling down.
  • Foods that are meant to be cold should always be kept cold. In fact, any cold items like sandwiches and milk should always be kept in a display that maintains a temperature of five degrees Celsius or below.

Any foods that are on display for self-service should either be packaged in sealed wrapping or should have proper serving utensils such as tongs or spoons. Students should never have reason to directly touch any food in order to transfer it to their plate. Foods on display for self-service should be kept in the proper heat or cold units throughout the time that they are available. Food should never be left on a benchtop or in an environment with no temperature control.

Hazardous Foods

Certain foods are considered high risk, and they need to be handled properly. The following is a list of foods that you need to be extra cautious with:

  • Seafood
  • Anything containing dairy
  • Raw eggs
  • Cooked rice
  • Ready packed salads
  • Raw meats
  • Pasta

All of these items should be considered potentially hazardous and should always be handled in your canteen with an extra level of care.

Defrosting Foods Properly

Many people don’t thoroughly understand how to defrost foods, especially meats, and handling items the wrong way can result in bacteria growth. You have a couple of different options for defrosting foods. The first rule of thumb is to never ever defrost by placing the meats in a container of hot water. The outside edges of the food will reach the danger zone while the centre is still frozen. This will result in a bacteria breeding ground. Instead, use one of these two methods:

  • Plan ahead and defrost in the refrigerator. This can take at least a day depending on the weight of the meat. It is the ideal method of defrosting since it is the safest, but the method does require planning ahead.
  • Use the microwave to defrost the food. If you do this, look for the defrost setting on the machine so that it will thaw the meat properly.

Additionally, you should never defrost foods by leaving them out on benchtops at room temperature. This is an almost guaranteed way of breeding bacteria, which will lead to food poisoning.

A Food Safety Supervisor

One of the most important things you should do in your school canteen is to hire a Food Safety Supervisor. Not only is it a smart decision, but also it is required by law in most parts of Australia. This type of supervisor will have training and certification to handle all food safety actions in your school canteen. A few things to keep in mind about choosing the right professional include:

  • They should be certified with the proper competency code for school canteens, which generally includes community service codes and courses
  • They should have a Statement of Attainment showing that they have been certified to work as a food safety supervisor
  • You could have someone on your staff trained for the job. They must take nationally accredited training through an RTO (registered training organisation). A common way of doing the training these days is through short online courses
  • A food safety supervisor doesn’t have to be on the premises all of the time, but they must always be contactable. For this reason, many places choose to have more than one Food Safety Supervisor on staff

The FSS has several different responsibilities:

  • Make sure the canteen is adhering to food safety legal requirements
  • Ensure all staff members understand proper food safety
  • Make sure that there are no compliance issues and promptly address any noncompliance among staff.
  • Stay up to date on new and changing food safety laws to update the canteen staff as well

Once you have chosen a Food Safety Supervisor for your school canteen, you need to notify the proper authority – usually your local council. They will require documentation proving that your Food Safety Supervisor is qualified to work in the school canteen environment. Because having a Food Safety Supervisor on staff is required by law, it is also a requirement that you keep the authorities notified if the person doing this role leaves and is replaced by a new supervisor.

And Finally…

A school canteen must be a clean and safe environment. Children are quite susceptible to food borne illness and you must take the proper steps to always ensure all foods are safe for consumption. That means practicing safe personal hygiene for all staff members, knowing how to properly store foods, how to keep foods at the proper temperatures, and how to maintain a cleanliness. School canteens in most areas of Australia are required by law to have a Food Safety Supervisor on staff, so you need to make sure you either hire one or have one of your staff members trained on a nationally recognised course.