While a barbecue offers many benefits to a licensee, it is vital that high standards of food safety and hygiene are observed when cooking outdoors.
People like eating outdoors. The summer barbecue, British weather permitting, can be a very lucrative addition to a pub's food repertoire. Linked to a special event such as fund raising activity or a theme night, it can help to bring in new customers. Even in its own right, a barbecue maximises the use of the pub's facilities by bringing the garden into play, and encourages customers to stay longer, drink more and generally help profits.
However, alfresco cooking and eating are also potential hazards which could seriously damage your pub's reputation.
If a food poisoning outbreak was traced back to your pub, the EHO is not going to be too concerned about whether it started inside or outside. Equally, if a member of your staff was injured using a barbecue, the Health and Safety Executive is unlikely to be impressed by your argument that proper safety procedures were in place in the pub kitchen, but were not followed when cooking outside.
You have the same duty of care to customers and employees in the pub garden as you do in the bar and kitchen, and need to have just as strict a safety framework in place.
Illness caused by undercooked or contaminated food is the main issue you need to be aware of. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) reports that the total weekly number of cases of food poisoning notified to the authorities doubles from the May Bank Holiday onwards for the duration of the summer, from 1,000 to 2,000 cases a week.
The incidence of campylobacter poisoning, caused by a bug found in poultry, raw or undercooked meat, also peaks around the end of May, as the first barbecues of the year get underway. This is not all caused by barbecues, of course. Warmer weather creates ideal conditions for food bugs such as salmonella and e.coli, as well as campylobacter, to multiply. Nevertheless, the FSA believes that barbecues and outdoor eating represent a particular risk.
FSA board member Robert Rees, a trained chef, said: "It's not surprising we see a peak in food-related illnesses at this time of the year. Many harmful bacteria grow in warmer conditions, turning our food into a potential health hazard. Summer is also the time when cooking and eating habits change, with more picnics and barbecues being held.
"Barbecues are a particular problem because of the way raw meat is stored before and after it is cooked. It's also difficult to tell when meat is cooked properly as it tends to brown quickly on the outside without cooking on the inside. Good preparation, prevention and cleanliness is what's needed. Simple measures go a long way towards cutting down the risks."
Pubs should not underestimate the logistics of cooking for large numbers of people outside the purpose-built environment of the kitchen.
Another common mistake is to put relatively inexperienced staff in charge of barbecues, assuming it is more straightforward than other types of cooking. Mr Rees said: "Larger gatherings can be particularly challenging if someone is not used to cooking for bigger groups of people. Keeping the menu simple, and resisting the temptation to serve food before it is properly cooked, will also help prevent the food bugs turning an enjoyable event into a disaster."
Outdoor equipment maintenance
Beyond following safe cooking and food handling guidelines, it is important that the normal cleaning and maintenance regime for kitchen equipment should be strictly followed.In particular:
- Permanent outdoor barbecues should have removable grills which can be put in the dishwasher
- All cooking and food preparation areas should have easy-to-clean surfaces
- Keep all food preparation surfaces clean and sanitised to prevent cross-contamination between raw and cooked food
- Proper provision should be made for refrigerating food until needed
- If cooked food is to be kept warm even for a short period before serving, it needs to be properly covered, and by law should be stored above 63 degrees Celsius
- Food handlers should have access to proper hand washing facilities
Gas barbecues work on the basic principle of gas burners heating a bed of lava rock. It takes very little time to reach cooking temperatures. Food is placed on grids over this heat and cooks exactly as if on a traditional charcoal barbecue.
The meat juices dripping down onto the hot surface below and then vapourising back onto the meat gives that traditional barbecue flavour.
Recognising that some publicans may have safety concerns about storing and using gas, supplier Calor advises that the connection of its barbecue to a cylinder is facilitated by a switch-on regulator so there is no need for spanners or other tools when exchanging an empty cylinder for full. A Calor retailer can advise on any specific concerns.
Advice for this feature was provided by Calor Gas, Safety Advisory Services Limited, London Borough of Sutton Environmental Health Department and the Food Standards Agency.
The Food Standards Agency has issued the following general safety tips for food prepared outdoors.
- Always wash your hands thoroughly - before preparing food and after touching raw meat
- Keep and prepare raw meats, including chicken, separate from other foods, even when cooking, to avoid cross-contamination
- Always use separate utensils for raw and cooked meat
- Cook all meat and meat products until they are piping hot and the juices run clear
- Turn food regularly as it cooks to avoid charring on one side and undercooking on the other
- Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold until it's time to eat them.
Other good advice for pub caterers:
- Consider partially cooking meat and poultry indoors first then finish cooking it on the barbecue
Never part-cook food on the barbecue and finish cooking later
- Store marinating meat and poultry in the fridge. Don't reuse the marinade
- Throw away barbecued food left out for more than two hours in very hot weather
Barbecue safety tips
- Always read the manufacturer's instructions carefully before assembling and using a new barbecue
- Always position the barbecue on a firm, level surface, away from any potential fire hazard such as garden sheds, fences, trees and shrubs
- Always place portable barbecues on a heat-proof surface or ground
- Never use a barbecue indoors unless it has been designed for this purpose
- Keep matches away from a lit barbecue
- Never attempt to move a barbecue once lit
- Always check that the gas hose has not perished or cracked in any way and that it is properly connected to the barbecue and gas cylinder before lighting
- Always leave a barbecue to cool down completely before cleaning it or packing it away. Keep barbecues away from combustible materials, including surfaces and buildings. Use only barbecue lighting fluid on charcoal
- Coals should be soaked in fluid five minutes before attempting to light up
- Never add more lighting fluid when flames have started
- Keep a bucket of water in close
- Smother smouldering coals with a lid and let them sit overnight. Stir the coals before leaving them and douse with water
- Do not empty coals into bins until next day
- Care should be taken to prevent anyone, particularly children, touching hot cooking surfaces
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