SC safety counts on us
In recent years, the number of food-borne disease outbreaks reported around the world has increased at an alarming rate. Today, it stands at a worrying 1.5 billion cases per year, resulting in approximately 3 million deaths and countless food producers and suppliers with reputations and bottom lines in tatters. Food safety has subsequently been thrust into the global spotlight, nowhere more so than in Asia against the backdrop of recent outbreaks where the fallout has been far-reaching and severe. Subsequently, consumer vigilance in quality control has skyrocketed, dramatically affecting purchasing habits and once again highlighting the necessity for immediate meaningful action.
But how do food producers and suppliers get to the bottom of food safety issues? Many have countless pieces of equipment and apparatus in place to improve hygiene. So where are they going wrong? Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. Outbreaks can happen for an incalculable number of reasons at any point in the food supply chain, which typically includes eight elements: menu specification, purchasing, goods receipt, storage, thawing, preparation, cooking and serving.
One imperative preventive action is the implementation of a food safety management system that is structured according to internationally recognised food safety standards such as ISO 22000 and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP). Such systems provide the first level of defence against the vast majority of contamination risks that may occur at the food storage, handling or preparation stage. Certification, by an independent third party such as TÜV SÜD, that demonstrates compliance to international food safety standards, also affords better transparency across an organisation's food preparation value chain and can enhance customer confidence in their products and services.
Food safety management systems, however, can only take protection so far. So how do food producers and suppliers shore up their defences to the umpteenth degree? From our experience at TÜV SÜD, there is one seemingly simple yet pertinent issue in the industry that is all too often overlooked - the human factor.
Bad behaviour is more common than you think
I would like to highlight my point by referencing a recent study from North Carolina State University, which set out to see how closely food handlers comply with food safety guidance in commercial kitchens. In order to get firsthand data on related practices, researchers placed small video cameras in inconspicuous areas around eight kitchens that volunteered to participate in the study. To my knowledge, this was the first time such an experiment has been carried out. The results were staggering.
Unlike previous studies I have seen on the subject, which based findings on inspection results and self-reporting by food handlers, this research found that cross-contamination errors are rife in the modern kitchen - far more than management or even the food handlers themselves would ever imagine. To be more precise, the study found approximately one cross-contamination event per food handler per hour. This means that the average kitchen worker committed eight cross-contamination errors that have the potential to lead to severe illnesses in the course of just one eight-hour shift. For me, the results of this research are not only significant, but ones that must be recognised and responded to by the food industry as a whole.
Help them help you
Improving the behaviour of food handlers in the supply chain can be undertaken in many ways. First and foremost, food producers and suppliers must make sure that anyone that interacts with food is well-equipped with knowledge of best practices, including personnel hygiene, washing and sanitisation of equipment, utensils and surfaces that come into contact with food as well as the food preparation areas, and an understanding of the consequences of malpractice. Customised training that is tailored to the individual company and its employees, and takes into account the unique risk context it operates under, is the best means of achieving this.
At the individual level, basic food safety training for all new staff after employment and annual refresher courses for food handlers are essential. In addition, international food safety standard awareness training, for example HACCP, for identified staff managing critical and control points provide another level of safeguard. At the broader level, health and infection control of food handlers must be conducted regularly as it covers the provision of medical examinations on employment and renewal of health certificates. Regular microbiological tests and clear sickness policies must also underpin an approach of constant vigilance and alertness.
For training to be effective, however, food handlers must apply what they have learnt as a matter of routine and constant visual observation (by supervisors and peers) reinforces the adherence of proper sanitation and hygienic practices. Clayton, Griffith, Price and Peters (2002), for example, found that 63% of food workers admitted they did not always carry out the food safety behaviours that they knew they should. As John Ruskin once said, "what we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do." Imparting knowledge on your workforce is therefore a critical component of improving food safety but by no means the only component.
Enabling good behaviour
Whilst at first it is easy to presume your workforce's ability to carry out best practice procedures is down to their desire to carry them out, often, however, this is not the case. Food producers and suppliers must also provide their workforce with an environment that enables good behaviour to flourish within the constraints of their working day. The findings from the aforementioned research by North Carolina State University, for example, also suggest that more mistakes are made when the kitchen is busy. During peak hours, they found increases in cross-contamination and decreases in workers complying with hand-washing guidelines. This might sound obvious but it highlights the critical importance of good management and sound internal resourcing. Without these, organisations are preventing their staff from carrying out imperative procedures.
The physical environment is also paramount to minimising the risk of food-borne illnesses. Tools such as hand sanitizer units must be placed in convenient and easily accessible areas in the kitchen. Rearranging such tools to improve the ergonomics of your kitchen can have a profound effect on reducing the likelihood of transfer of some pathogens. You might also want to look at overhauling existing food-preparation schedules so that cooks face less time pressure during peak hours.
My final recommendation would be to instill trust and a sense of collegiality in your workforce. Having an open door can go a long way to achieving this but I would also suggest encouraging staff to work in teams and incentivising good behaviour. You are, after all, working towards the same end goal. This philosophy will also encourage food handlers to offer support and suggestions for improving safety, quality and hygiene to management. Such suggestions are invaluable as it is the handlers and handlers alone that fully understand the barriers that inhibit their ability to fully safeguard the supply chain, company and customers from disaster. Put simply, they are as valuable an asset as the food itself. Looking after them and enhancing their ability to perform must therefore be of utmost priority.
Contributed by Ishan Palit, President & CEO, TÜV SÜD Asia Pacific
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