An unsparing attitude to safety and hygiene has always been vital for companies in the food chain – one slip-up can do huge damage to a company’s reputation and be ruinously costly –and recently the law has increased the penalties for any failings even further.
Sentencing guidelines indicate businesses could be facing much higher fines if they are prosecuted for food safety breaches, and individuals linked to any cases, including company executives, could face tougher penalties.
Jude Mason, consulting and technical services director at food safety specialist NSF International, cites the food poisoning case in Essex, which came to court at the beginning of this year, as an example of this new approach.
She said: “The Railway case is an example of where someone died and the people involved within the pub and restaurant were imprisoned and there were big fines for the business as well.”
Speaking at Food Manufacture Group’s one-day food safety conference held at the Lowry in Manchester on September 29, Mason explained why it was even more important for food companies to make hygiene their number one priority.
And while processes and equipment are vital in this, Mason says a business’s food safety culture is paramount.
10 food safety essentials
- Clear objectives
- Leadership and senior management buy-in
- Whole chain approach to products and suppliers
- Having approved suppliers
- Approved product specifications
- Complaint monitoring
- Product testing and inspection
- Documented incident procedures
- Horizon scanning
- Management review
Food safety culture (Return to top)
NSF believes there are 10 key food safety essentials that need to be in place for robust corporate food safety, but in order to fully implement these, a business needs first to understand where it is currently in terms of food safety.
The first part of that process involves interviewing a cross-section of people from the company, from the chief executive to the factory floor.
Mason says: “We need to understand whether food safety is something that is culture in the business, or whether it’s something they’ve been told to do, and whether they are even aware certain things need to be done.
“It’s about trying to get into the minds of those individuals to understand what they are doing and what’s influencing that behaviour.”
Once this is done, NSF can ensure there is the correct level of training and engagement at all levels so people understand what is required. To back this up, says Mason, people need to feel they are part of the business.
“Having an effective culture is about making sure people feel empowered to raise any concern they may have and ensuring they have a voice that is listened to and contributes to the development and growth of that business,” adds Mason.
The ultimate goal is to ensure a food safety culture becomes part of the DNA of a company and becomes self-sustaining, she says: “Then when someone moves to the business they will feel that, and embrace it from day one.
“To them it’s not about food safety culture it’s just something that everybody believes in and works collectively to ensure that food is safe.”
Cleaning and sanitation (Return to top)
Cleaning and sanitation seem commonly to fall outside of food businesses’ food safety culture, warns Dr Josephine Head, consultant company microbiologist at advisory and testing specialist SVA, who also spoke at the conference.
Head points out that the top four non-conformances in British Retail Consortium audits are all to do with basic hygiene in food factories, and there are a large number of food poisoning outbreaks that occur as a consequence of poor hygiene.
In her experience of trouble-shooting at sites where hygiene has broken down, some contributory factors have come up repeatedly. Many sites, she says, have cleaning teams that turn up at night-time, and because of that they are not looked at as carefully as day-time staff.
“I’ve seen a number of situations where normal access and hygiene was completely abandoned by the night cleaning team,” she says. “Often they are a third-party operation and therefore fall outside the culture of the business.”
Factory design is another issue, she says, with some factories set up so staff can walk from one end to the other without having to go through normal hygiene processes. Individual pieces of equipment often are not looked at in terms of hygienic design so some pieces of equipment are not designed to be broken down and cleaned.
These three factors combined in a recent case she investigated. She says: “They were getting maggots in a cooked meat product because there was no way of breaking down the equipment, in combination with the night cleaners coming in through the side door into the high-risk area which was letting in pests, hence the flies getting into the food.”
Engineers are another group within factories that may not be included in hygiene culture. “Often they have their own routes in and out and aren’t really engaged in a hygienic fashion,” she says. “Sometimes the engineers have no understanding of food hygiene at all.”
Tool boxes can harbour many foreign bodies, and because engineers are wearing boiler suits, they can walk around all areas of the factory without being subject to the same protective clothing changes as the rest of the staff.
Cleaning chemicals (Return to top)
One of the areas often affected by cost pressures is the use of cleaning chemicals, with the temptation to cut down on the use of these expensive products in an attempt to save money.
But there is also pressure to minimise chemical use for environmental reasons, and this is making it increasingly difficult to achieve an effective sanitation regime.
She says companies will have to adopt newer techniques, that do not use the older chemicals, in order to ensure the safety of their products.
She suggests that ozone and plasma technology are two sanitising solutions that businesses will need to consider, as well as ice pigging, which uses ice slush to clean out pipework, and has the added benefit of waste reduction through optimal recovery of food material.
The equipment food companies use to make their products also has a role to play in food safety, according to Emma Maguire, hygiene specialist at food and drink research company Campden BRI, who also spoke at the food safety conference.
“To produce high quality, safe food products, suitable hygienic design and maintenance are required,” she says.
The materials used to construct the equipment must be suitable for the application to which they are intended and must be cleanable before each use.
Smooth surface finishes and limited angles, corners or crevices help prevent microbial or insect niches and areas for organic matter to gather, while also making the task of cleaning easier.
Sufficient drainability (Return to top)
Sufficient drainability is important, as stagnant water or cleaning chemicals in a piece of equipment present a risk to the product. It is also important that no ancillary substances such as lubricants can come into contact with food.
She also advises: “When a food manufacturer purchases a piece of equipment it may not anticipate the damaging effect the harsh environments in its factory may have through factors such as humidity, fluctuating temperature and cleaning chemicals.”
For this reason it is important to put in place planned preventative maintenance plans when installing a new piece of equipment, in order for that machine to last and continually produce safe food. It is also vital before commissioning a piece of equipment, to factor in the time it will take to clean it and the suitability of the cleaning method.
“This can be frustrating for equipment suppliers which have developed hygienic designs but lose contracts based on initial capital costs alone,” she adds.
“It stands to reason that hygienically designed equipment is easier to clean, which should lead to a range of benefits including reduced water use, cleaning times, production downtime and extended component life.”