Ruth L. Petran, PhD, vice president, Food Safety and Public Health, Ecolab on food safety being a critical responsibility for F&B professionals.
Food-borne illnesses may not be new problems, but they remain to be an important global challenge, including here, in the Middle East. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), developing countries are at more of a risk of food-borne illnesses due to limited disease surveillance, prevention, and control strategies.
Indeed, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region only ranks behind Africa and South-East Asia in shouldering the third highest estimated burden of food-borne diseases. While such diseases rank amongst the world’s most preventable illnesses, a recent WHO report revealed that almost one in 10 people globally contract a food-related illness every year. As in the rest of the world, diarrheal disease agents including norovirus, campylobacter, E. coli, and salmonella cause most of the food-borne illnesses in the MENA region too.
Typically caused by bacteria and viruses, non-fatal food-borne illnesses can still leave damaging effects in their wake, with individuals sometimes suffering from subsequent kidney failure, chronic arthritis, or even brain and nerve damage. Moving away from human impact, food-borne illnesses also pose a severe risk to businesses. Outlets serving contaminated food, or brands selling disease-carrying bacteria can suffer in areas such as damaged reputation, lost revenues, and hefty fines from municipalities and food safety watchdogs. In this environment, F&B providers must understand how these diseases arise and how best to protect their customers and business.
Food-borne illnesses can lead to unpleasant symptoms, hospitalisation, and even death. Food items from ice or poultry, to lettuce or nuts can contain harmful micro-organisms and parasites, some of which can prove fatal. The threat is further amplified by the fact that the naked, human eye cannot detect whether a food or beverage is contaminated, the effect is not felt until the food is consumed, and symptoms set in. Food contamination can take place anywhere during the supply chain process, from harvesting and processing to preparation and storage. It is vital to understand and raise awareness of potential risks in the entire supply chain cycle that can cause and spread illnesses, which can aid in the development and implementation of preventive controls.
The most common contributing factors to food-borne illnesses are:
Personal Hygiene Failure: Hand hygiene is essential for anyone harvesting, handling or preparing food. If an individual has dirty hands, germs can be transferred. F&B operators along 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 any open cuts on their hands. The use of gloves, utensils or other tools to avoid bare hand contact with food can help prevent the transfer of germs. Proper staff training is critical to ensure hygiene is consistent.
Time and Temperature Abuse: Temperature plays a key role in food safety and ensuring quality in all stages of preparation, transportation, and storage. Food temperatures should be maintained outside of the danger zone (Between 4C and 60C, where contaminating microorganisms are more likely to be able to grow) to avoid compromising food safety and quality. Food organisations must store food according to recommendations, such as freezing or refrigerating at specified temperatures. Warming trays should be used to keep food that is intended to be served at warmer temperatures from cooling into the danger zone before being served. Adhere to recommended storage practices from credible authorities and follow the manufacturer’s ‘Use By’ dates. Even at refrigeration temperatures, some dangerous bacteria can grow, albeit very slowly. F&B operators should comply with all appropriate regulations regarding food storage times. For example, food that requires storage at a specific temperature should be stored in the appropriate location to maintain its freshness and quality to avoid having the food rendered inedible, and thereby wasted due to its improper storage.
Improper Cooking: Raw food such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products, and fresh produce can sometimes contain bacteria that causes food-borne illnesses. Food should also reach the correct internal temperature. F&B operators and customers cannot depend on sight, smell or taste alone to determine if food has reached the proper temperature necessary to kill harmful bacteria. Use of a properly calibrated food thermometer is critical.
Cross-Contamination: If preparation areas are not cleaned and sanitised properly, bacteria from contaminated food or personnel could linger on surfaces and spread around. Ensuring that the food preparation area has been accurately cleaned and sanitised before use will help protect food from bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses. When using the same cutting surface for different foods, it is also important to clean and sanitise between tasks.
Contaminated Food: Any food that enters the facility should come from an approved source, one that is frequently inspected by a regulatory agency and demonstrated to have strong food safety systems in place. Even when using legitimate sources, it is imperative to check food deliveries to ensure the quality has not been compromised in any way. If the temperature of the food has been compromised, the food has been abused in any way or if there’s any evidence of infestation, the delivery should be rejected so that the food is not passed on to consumers.
In supporting the prevention of food-borne illness, Ecolab believes that food safety is critical to the reputation of businesses that manufacture, sell, and serve food and beverages.
Ecolab can help customers reduce or eliminate food-borne illnesses through effective cleaning and sanitising and is committed to ensuring safe food by providing effective products, programs and services that protect people and businesses from risks. Ecolab helps to ensure the quality and safety of more than a quarter (27%) of the world’s processed food at 5,000 food and beverage plants across the globe every year, supports kitchens serving 45 billion restaurant meals, and helps clean 31 billion hands per year with its hand hygiene solutions.