When you’re catering for large groups, food safety cannot be ignored - unless you want dozens of sick guests! Few would want to eat at a buffet buzzing with flies, or accept food from a worker who picked up the chicken with their hands and dumped it on your plate. There are basics in food handling that are no brainers, but some considerations aren’t always easy to identify.
Food safety is often defined as the safe practice of handling, preparing and storing food, but there’s a little more involved. We’ll explain all you need to know to improve your food safety.
Here are 6 strategies for improving food safety in catering.
According to The Food Standards Industry, most food contamination occurs during food handling, and is entirely preventable. For the catering industry, it’s recommended that each member of the team have a Food Handler Certification in order to ensure everyone is properly trained in food safe practices, but it’s not mandatory.
The biggest concern in food handling is separation of foods to prevent cross contamination. Cross contamination happens when harmful germs are spread between foods, surfaces, and equipment. Make sure you keep raw meats and poultry separate from fresh produce. Use different chopping boards. Disinfect and wipe down surfaces after handling any raw foods, and wash all equipment in hot, soapy water before using again. Most importantly, wash your hands regularly. If you’re using gloves to prep food, you may not keep safe practices in mind - because you may not feel the contaminants on your hands - so it’s important to change your gloves routinely, especially after handling raw foods.
Use by and best before dates are often printed on foods. A home cook can use precaution, but a caterer should not. Use by dates are found on perishable products like dairy, meat, and fish and are based on scientific testing, determining how long these foods remain safe. After the printed date, food could be unsafe for consumption, even if it’s stored correctly and smells okay. On the other hand, food with longer shelf lives use best before dates, demonstrating when this food will be at its best. After that date, the food is still safe to eat, but the texture and flavour may have deteriorated.
Just as mentioned in regards to cross contamination dangers, prepare vegetables and meats on separate boards. In catering you’ll often need to prepare food ahead of time, but if you’re chilling and storing that food, make sure you know the correct temperatures at which to store the food, and use correct storage methods. Never prepare foods so far ahead of time that they spoil. Spoiled food should be discarded as not to make people sick, even if it looks and smells fine.
Always use a chopping board to chop food otherwise knicks and cuts in your food prep surface can harbour germs. Use separate boards for raw meat, vegetables, and ready to use foods, and wash boards with hot soapy water between uses.
Remove any clutter from surfaces during food prep to keep everyone safe.
Make sure knives are sharp. Sharp knives are safer because they won’t slip, allowing for greater control. With dull knives, it’s a waiting game before you cut yourself; they’re quite simply dangerous to have in the catering industry. Make sure you and your staff keep all knives sharpened.
Food temperature is one of the most important considerations in improving catering food safety. Always make sure food is cooked to the right temperature, especially in catering. Cook the food to the right temperature, and hold the food at a temperature ABOVE 63°C to control the multiplication of bacteria in hot food. When reheating food, always reheat above 82°C, which is a legally required temperature. Temperatures any lower than these can cause bacteria to multiply out of control, and make your guest very, very ill.
There’s a food danger zone which is roughly 4-60°C. FOOD SHOULD NEVER BE OUT OF THE REFRIGERATOR IN THIS TEMPERATURE ZONE FOR MORE THAN 2 HOURS. (In the home, that time can be between 2-4 hours, but in catering, safety of the customers is key). Furthermore, keep in mind that harmful bacteria can double in as little as 20 minutes. After 2 hours, that food should be discarded. It is not safe for reheating or refrigeration. Any food eaten will cause food poisoning.
Make sure all of your team know the food danger zone temperature, and check the food regularly with thermometers. Keep cold foods cold, and keep hot foods hot (and don’t mix the two). Hot foods should be kept on warmers that heat the food to a safe temperature, and cold foods should be kept on ice.
In catering, know the amount of food you need to serve at any given time, and keep only a certain amount of food in food warmers, or on ice. If the food runs low, take a fresh pan out of the oven to be placed in the food warmer, or a fresh tray out of the fridge. Overcrowded pans stop food from reaching appropriate temperatures, so make sure you put out less than needed, and keep the rest at a safe temperature.
Store raw or cooked foods at correct temperatures in correct containers. Chill and refrigerate all items promptly. Do not overfill your fridge as air needs to circulate to keep the correct internal temperature. Use an external thermometer as well as an internal one, as the external thermometer can tell all your staff to make quick checks to ensure that all fridges are safe (without opening them and thus warming them up).
Foods should be kept in airtight containers. Meat and poultry should be at the bottom of the fridge to prevent drips onto other foods, which will cause cross contamination and encourage the growth and spread of harmful bacteria.
Some fruits need to ripen out of the fridge or it affects taste. Make sure these fruits are kept in a cool room. Never keep uncooked potatoes in the fridge. When stored in the fridge, the potato starch is converted to sugar, and then when baked or fried, these sugars combine with the amino acid, asparagine, producing the chemical acrylamide (a genotoxic carcinogen), which is considered harmful. As a caterer, it’s tempting to prepare potatoes ahead of time, place them in water in the fridge, but it’s not recommended. An alternative is preparing them a maximum of four hours ahead of time in salt water on the kitchen counter. Make sure they are covered to prevent any debris or contaminants from entering the water. Discard and change the water frequently until use.
As a general rule, the colder the temperature the slower germs can grow, so you want to keep your fridge at a temperature that isn’t quite freezing, but is as low as you can safely go. Keep the refrigerator at 5°C to protect food from listeria, which is a psychotropic (liking cold temperatures) food poisoning bacterium. Predictive microbiology growth curves estimate how quickly germs grow under different conditions. Listeria grows nearly twice as fast at 8°C than it does at 5°C; thus, for catering, 5°C is recommended to keep your customers the safest, especially from listeria, whose symptoms are similar to flu and gastroenteritis (high temperature, muscle aches and pains, chills, sickness, and diarrhoea).
Most caterers know how to keep a hygienic kitchen and serving station, but with the rush of an event, hygiene can slip in favour of fast service. However, it’s important to wash hands and surfaces often, keep away pests, and make sure all dish cloths and tea towels are washed regularly.
Disinfect and clean all surfaces before and after use as is best practice. When in doubt, always clean! Clean areas prevent bacteria spread, and when you’re catering events it’s crucial. Make sure all cutlery, glassware, servingware, pots, pans, and everything that will touch the guest’s mouths and hands - and the caterers - is clean. You don’t want to find you have the cleanest kitchen service, but there’s leftover bacteria on the side plate.
6. Clothing and Footwear
Now that your equipment is clean, you’ve washed your hands, the food is correctly stored, and heated, the final consideration is footwear and clothing.
All catering staff must have clean, unsoiled clothes and shoes as contaminants can live in fabrics too. Keep your catering uniforms clean, and make sure you have water-resistant, easily cleaned, slip-resistant shoes for you and your staff. Shoes must be regularly washed and disinfected too.
When moving between surfaces - carpet, tile, wood floor, concrete, etc - staff can slip and trip (the most common workplace accident) so having the right shoes is vital for improving safety and comfort (think arch support, light shoes, trip guard, spill proofing, and so forth).
Catering shoes with the safety features you need:
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