Business Advice

The Fight Against Grime

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food hygiene Food hygiene rating Food Food safety Food standards agency

Technology such as Checkit can help with monitoring food safety standards
Technology such as Checkit can help with monitoring food safety standards
When it comes to catering for the public, nothing comes higher than food hygiene and, as Phil Mellows reveals, running a tight ship is the only sound approach

Poisoning your customers is certainly bad for business — but the benefits of a sound food-safety regime extend much further than that these days.

People are increasingly concerned about what they eat and where they eat it. The latest survey by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) shows increasing awareness of hygiene standards and the FSA’s Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) — formerly known as Scores on the Doors.

By the end of last year 37% of consumers said they were aware of the FHRS, up from just 21% in 2011, and 66% said they’d seen the stickers indicating an establishment’s score from one to five. For 69%, up from 63%, hygiene is now a factor in choosing where to eat out.

Achieving a high food-hygiene score — and for growing numbers of pub operators only a five will do — has become an important part not just of the daily routine, but of marketing the business to customers.

So how do you reach that high five? While it’s the pest infestations and dirty kitchens that hit the headlines, the most common reasons for pubs falling short of perfection are more mundane.

Dr Lisa Ackerley is a professor of environmental health and managing director of Hygiene Audit Systems, which works with pub operators ranging in size from the giant 1,600-site Mitchells & Butlers to Tom Kerridge’s two Michelin-starred Hand & Flowers single-unit pub.

“Looking at the statistics, it’s often the ‘confidence in management’ score that lets down businesses, which are otherwise running well, and drops them from a five to a four,” she says. “The fault is often gaps in record-keeping or training. Environmental health officers [EHOs] want to be confident that high standards are likely to be upheld until the next inspection, and it’s record-keeping that provides that assurance. However much a nuisance it is to have the documentation, it has three advantages — legal compliance, due diligence and an improved food-hygiene rating.”

Maintaining those records need no longer involve a forest of paperwork. Electronic audits, among them Hygiene Audit Systems’ HAWK, are impressing EHOs by using sensors that collect temperatures automatically. Apart from that, it’s cooking procedures that tend to let down a pub. I think the most risky areas are inadequate cooking, often from not using a thermometer, and cook-chill,” Ackerley says.

“Many businesses need to prepare food in advance to be efficient, but this is potentially where the biggest risk can be. If I had my way, everyone doing cook-chill would have a small blast chiller to whizz foods through the ‘danger zone’ ready for safe storage. Not everyone can afford this or has the space, but there are many ways of accelerating the cooling process so foods can get to 5°C quickly. Ice and water baths are very effective.

“Labelling, too, is key, as is organisation and record-keeping so you can prove these foods were made safely.”

And it’s staff training that underpins those processes, she says. “Everyone must know the part they play in attaining high standards, from washing hands after handling raw meat, to cleaning and disinfecting properly, checking the temperature of cooked foods and making sure fridges are working. “Simply having a Level 2 Food Safety Certificate isn’t the end of training. Level 3 training is key for chefs and kitchen managers to really understand more complex food-safety issues and how to manage a food business safely.”

Case study

Aiming for high fives

The Cartford Inn at Little Eccleston in Lancashire is one of many pubs that scores a five under the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme. Here Patrick Beaume, licensee of the freehouse, explains how “Food hygiene is an important ingredient in the recipe for a successful business. Good staff want to work in a safe, clean and organised environment, customers want to frequent safe and clean venues. At the Cartford Inn it’s one of our core values and staff embrace it when joining.

“First you must have a written policy in place with supporting documentation, risk assessment, list of suppliers and so on. The Health & Safety Executive provides comprehensive files on its website. Ask your environmental health officer [EHO] for advice, and develop a good relationship with them. 

“Your venue must be maintained to a good standard and look clean. All your staff need to understand the basics of health and safety and be trained through a college or specialist organisation. In the kitchen, hygiene must be second nature. Your cleaning schedules, chemical management, anti-cross-contamination procedures, cooking temperatures, holding temperatures, cooling temperatures, fridge temperatures record, maintenance management and stock rotation are a daily routine.

“Cooking and customer service must remain the priority, though. There is no room for too much bureaucracy. But if you set up a good food hygiene system you’ll not only get a five rating, the EHO will visit only once a year. And if you have a genuine food contamination issue and are honest about it, the EHO will support you rather than prosecute you.”

The case of the rare burger

Thanks to the fashion for gourmet burgers, much of the debate around food safety recently has homed in on whether it’s OK to serve a beef pattie pink inside. It’s even prompted an ad-hoc Government advisory committee into the matter.

The problem arises because, while you can cook a steak rare because all the germs are on the outside, when meat is minced they’re spread throughout.

Now the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food’s report on the safe cooking of burgers has confirmed the FSA’s advice that the whole burger must be cooked at 70°C for at least two minutes to kill off the E-coli O157 bacteria.

But it did not rule out the possible safety of alternative time and temperature combinations. Some advise an extra couple of degrees to be on the safe side, among them Dr Lisa Ackerley. “If anyone says this would incinerate the meat, I say they haven’t used a probe thermometer! It’s amazing how many chefs believe they can tell the temperature of food by colour, and feel they’ll have to over-cook for safety.”

Help with checks

Monitoring and logging temperatures and tasks such as cleaning are vital in maintaining food safety standards — yet it can be time-consuming and is not entirely foolproof. Now, though, there are electronic systems that do the job for you, including the newly-launched Checkit.

Designed specifically for the food industry, Checkit uses fixed sensors in fridges to monitor temperatures, humidity and to check that doors have been closed. It also uses a hand-held sensor to perform line checks, test deliveries and monitor tasks.

Data from the devices is sent to the web-based Checkit Hub, which generates daily reports so you’re ready for that environmental health officer visit, highlighting areas that need attention. And if kit breaks down, or a door is left open, it sends alerts by email, text or pop-up to your PC, tablet or smartphone.

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