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Nick Henderson Nov 3, 2021 4:11:00 PM 13 min read

Food safety risk assessments - 5 hazards you might be missing

Working in food service? You probably find yourself spinning a lot of plates. One of them will be the regular food safety risk assessment you are due to conduct. And that’s one thing you don’t want to see crashing down around your ears.

Food safety failures can trigger intensive investigations by regulators, who may then demand remedial measures. Beyond this, there is the possibility of cases being prosecuted in the criminal courts. The consequences range from financial penalties to imprisonment.

Perhaps even more worrying is the reputational damage and loss of business that stem from poor ratings and negative publicity. In this competitive corner of the economy, where word-of-mouth reviews from customers are so influential, food businesses cannot afford to take any chances.

A food safety risk assessment is an opportunity to review all areas of your food service operation, identify areas of weakness and take preventative steps before the worst happens.

But don’t forget those spinning plates. With so much time taken up by recruitment, staff rotas, menu decisions, supplier negotiations, cost control, accounting, marketing and customer service, it’s not surprising that hidden risks might be missed.

 What’s more, dependence on outdated reporting mechanisms perpetuates the presence of dark operations, whereby insights are buried in inaccessible paperwork and spreadsheets, which further impedes your ability to pinpoint risks.

 

Here are five focus areas for your food safety risk assessment that you might be missing – and advice on how to keep on top of these hidden hazards.

 

Examine allergy information in your food safety risk assessment

The number of people affected by food allergies is the subject of widely varying estimates. One US study suggested that food allergies affect up to 10% of the population while 1-2% of adults and 5-8% of children in the UK are thought to have a food allergy, which equates to around 2 million people.

A series of tragic high-profile cases have pushed this issue up the agenda and legal frameworks are becoming more stringent. Poor management of allergens, from cross-contamination to inaccurate labelling in packages, can put lives at risk and pose a serious threat to business’ reputation.

Food business operators in retail and catering have a legal obligation to provide allergen information and follow labelling rules.

There are two main strands to this. Firstly, businesses are generally required to provide allergen information to the consumer for both prepacked and non-prepacked food and drink. Secondly, they are obliged to handle and manage food allergens effectively in food preparation.

A food safety risk assessment should ensure staff receive training on allergens and there is a process in place to ensure required practices are consistently followed.

Given relatively high staff turnover, busy working conditions and dependence on paperwork that’s easily lost or damaged, there’s a strong case for digitising food allergen management processes. There are two major advantages. Firstly, smart technology provides staff with clear, real-time guidance to make adherence easier. Secondly, all relevant activity is logged and securely stored in digital format to either provide an early warning of non-compliance or prove that the right procedures were followed.

 

Monitor use by dates as part of your food safety risk assessment

Many foods spoil as they age and can become breeding grounds for harmful pathogens and poisons. As a food professional, you know that already.

Best before dates are a guideline on when a certain product is at its best, while use by dates indicate the point at which a product may be unsafe to eat. It’s okay to eat a product that is past its best before date, but nobody should eat a product that has gone beyond its use by date.

Accurate use by dates should be defined at the manufacturing or preparation stage. The factor that has the greatest bearing on shelf life is the growth of micro-organisms. Even with non-perishable foods chemical changes can occur over time that lead to changes in a food item’s flavour, colour or structure. Testing methods range from basic and accelerated shelf-life testing to challenge testing, where foods are deliberately infected with different pathogens and microbes to determine how easily those agents grow in the product. There’s also growing use of predictive microbiology, which uses sophisticated computer programs to simulate and model the various risks different foodstuffs pose as they spoil.

Most food retailers and food service outlets have systems in place to review use by dates at regular intervals but that doesn’t mean they are immune to error, particularly when the burden falls on busy staff who naturally prioritise customer service. A food safety risk assessment needs to examine this closely.

A number of food businesses are now using digital assistants, delivered via a mobile app, to prompt and guide staff through the regular checks they need to do and make sure no overdue use by dates are missed.

 

Supply chain traceability is crucial to food safety risk assessments

Consumers are increasingly conscious of where their food has come from. Concerns about food safety, sustainability, supplier welfare, distance of travel, allergens and production methods have all become more prominent in the minds of the public.

Yet at the same time food supply chains have become more complex and global. Add in supply chain disruption caused by Covid-19, poor communication between parties, labour shortages and changing geo-political barriers and you end up with a situation where food traceability becomes even more difficult.

This means that producers, retailers and restaurants all need to work harder to demonstrate exactly what is in their products and meals.

Your food safety risk assessment should enable you to answer key questions about your food supply chain. How well do you know your suppliers? Where are they sourcing their ingredients from? Which businesses are upstream of them? Without clear traceability and accountability in the supply chains you are using, it’s impossible to account for the safety of your food. Lowering the food miles of your products and auditing your suppliers are two things worth considering.

The scale of the issue also requires the intervention of technology. This was acknowledged in a statement by the US FDA on plans to strengthen the US government’s food safety programme from 2020 onwards. Commissioners outlined the need for a smarter, more technologically advanced food safety system to more effectively track and trace food from farm to fork.

Robust digital systems not only strengthen consistent practices but provide an accurate, real-time record that enhances visibility, giving all parties a greater opportunity to provide the necessary reassurances to consumers.

 

Employee culture is integral to food safety

Rules and regulations are good. The tricky part is making sure your staff follow them. Do you know what happens in your kitchen when you are not there? Even basic rules like hand-washing can be flouted. That’s why fostering a culture of food safety is so important; rules without reason do not get followed. Unless your staff have a grounding in the bigger picture of food safety, you will be susceptible to food safety breaches.

Something as innocuous as a chef’s preferred method for cooking a burger can have serious ramifications for public health. Everyone in your food operation has to understand his or her role in overall food safety standards because, as is often the case, the devil is in the detail.

Food safety culture has to be at the heart of your food safety risk assessment.

Problems often begin when compliance is an after-thought. Historic dependence on retrospective paper checklists only entrenches this stance. Checklists, by their very nature, are backwards-looking. They only give a binary option to record whether something has or hasn’t been done.

A more robust approach is to guide the right behaviours at the outset by making food safety integral to the work that’s being done. Providing direct prompts and guidance to staff, based on time, location, job role or input from sensors, ensures they stay on track. It also generates a digital log, available via online dashboards, that show what’s working and what’s not. As a result, best practice can be rewarded and areas of weakness addressed with additional training or support. This is especially valuable for multi-site operations where managers cannot always be there in person to observe what’s being done.

 

Storage requirements are key to your food safety risk assessment

The way food is stored is crucial to its safety and therefore pivotal to your food safety risk assessment. From fridges and freezers to hot-hold storage, consistent temperatures are critical to maintaining not just the safety of food but quality too. Additionally, the disposal of spoiled food is hard to swallow from either a waste reduction or financial efficiency perspective.

Good food safety practice requires food storage temperatures to be checked on a regular basis throughout the day. This has historically been a manual exercise, placing a disruptive burden on busy staff.

Not only do manual checks take up valuable time but it’s hard for managers to have full complete confidence in paper-based reports that could have been filled out retrospectively or falsified. Additionally, paper records are easily lost or damaged.

There is also the worry of what happens out-of-hours when there are no staff to check storage facilities. And if a temperature deviation has occurred, there is no way of knowing exactly how long the fault has existed.

The growing adoption of 24/7 automated temperature monitoring takes away the strain of manual checking routines and ensures accurate readings are constantly being logged day and night. Alerts can be set up based on agreed parameters so that teams are notified as soon as a temperature variation occurs. This means immediate remedial action can be taken to move stock, reset equipment or arrange a maintenance visit.

The rise of intelligent operations enables alerts to feed into a responsive workflow that’s delivered to local staff via their mobile devices. Staff are guided on what to do next and any action taken is logged alongside the original temperature alert.

 

Food safety risk assessments are vital in helping you uncover hidden hazards. But with smart approaches these tasks don't necessarily have to add more hours to your day.

 

 

 

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Nick Henderson

Content & Communications Manager at Checkit

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