By Food Safety Consultancy Manager Annabel Kyle of STS Food Safety (www.elas.uk.com/food-safety)
All food businesses are required, by law, to handle food safely and serve safe food to the consumer. The importance of food safety increases for care caterers because their consumers are vulnerable to foodborne illness and more likely to experience the most severe symptoms, as is the case with listeriosis.
Along with the high mortality rate for listeriosis, it is clear why the bacteria responsible, Listeria monocytogenes, is particularly significant to care caterers. Particularly persistent due to its adaptability, it survives, and can thrive, in low temperatures, can survive in salty and low moisture foods and is hard to remove from surfaces due to its ability to form biofilms. With an extended incubation period, it’s clear why its control is important.
The current influx of staff from the hospitality sector (who may not have experience of care catering) may provide benefits, however, hospitality workers are unlikely to have the specific knowledge and experience relating to Listeria monocytogenes, nutrition or supplements needed in the care sector, so proper training is a must.
Listeria monocytogenes is commonly associated with higher risk, ready to eat foods and its controls are similar to those needed for other bacteria, such as E coli O157, Salmonella and Campylobacter.
However, due to the slower multiplication of Listeria monocytogenes below 5°C, maintaining the cold chain throughout the food’s journey is of even greater importance than usual.
Many E coli O157 controls are also relevant for Listeria monocytogenes, such as storing unwashed fruit and vegetables away from ready to eat foods, washing produce before use, ensuring complex equipment is not used for both raw and ready to eat foods, ensuring other cross contamination preparation controls are in place, and hand washing practices are tip-top. These are all important controls for many other harmful bacteria as well.
Among the difficulties in care settings is that the caterer may wish to exclude higher risk foods from menus to protect their customers. However, if someone has eaten a food all their life, is this reasonable?
It certainly may not be easy. Caterers can take the necessary care during preparation and handling, maintaining the cold chain throughout, to help ensure these foods are served safely. Care providers can also implement a strict policy on foods brought in by visitors, where controls over temperature and preparation are unknown.
Many of these controls can be applied to the control of food allergens too. The Food Information Regulations require caterers to inform their customers accurately of the presence of 14 specific allergens in the foods they serve. At minimum, this could involve using manufacturers’ product labels but, if packets are thrown away after use, is this a reliable method? Set recipes and allergen tick sheets, or even allergen labels, are all viable options, provided the information is provided as the dish is served to the customer, meaning caterers must include oils, garnishes, glazes, dressings, etc.
Chefs also need to ensure allergen-free meals for customers are prepared carefully, making sure preparation and cooking areas are thoroughly cleaned first and that the same equipment isn’t used for both allergen-free and allergen-containing foods. And what about product substitutions? These could introduce allergens to recipes that were not initially present if not effectively managed.
Communication between customer and chef is also of vital importance, something that often takes place via servers. There have been several high-profile cases where allergen sufferers have died as a result of poor communication about allergens and it’s essential that communication channels are open and clear when dealing with any allergen-free meal.
Thorough and meaningful training in food safety hazards and controls, such as those described above, is key to ensuring care consumers are protected. Support should be in place to help teams translate their training into practice in the workplace, e.g. via supervision.
Regular audits help monitor standards and verify that the HACCP plan is being followed and to help identify issues and correct them before serious problems arise. Audits can be undertaken by trained managers, or external parties.
All in all, caterers serving food to consumers in the care sector need to follow existing requirements and guidelines but also take extra care to ensure the highest standards to protect their customers.