I read an article recently which said that people are more concerned about the food safety of raw eggs than they are of reheated rice or other common causes of food poisoning. We have Edwina Curry’s anti-salmonella crusade to thank for that. But we need to remember that food safety is not always about hazards from micro organisms: Products can also be subject to physical contamination.
Whilst many aspects of physical contamination might not cause severe food poisoning, there is the potential to harm through choking or cuts etc. Sometimes physical contamination of food makes the news headlines – for example glass found in baby food, or a dead rat found in a loaf of bread. Actual sabotage is extremely rare – more often than not food can accidentally become contaminated by items such as hair, fingernails, staples or string. However there are several measures we can take to prevent this from happening.
We often talk about the four ‘P’s’ associated with physical hazards in a food processing environment – We have covered Pests in detail in a previous blog, so let’s take a closer look at the other three: People, Packaging and Premises.
We are all well aware of the requirements to prevent contamination by regular hand washing. Care must also be taken to ensure that the correct personal protective clothing for the job is worn. This includes hats, hairnets and beard snoods. All hair should be captured inside the appropriate protective items to prevent it falling into product. Protective clothing should be clean and fasten without the use of buttons. It should be changed into on the premises – no outdoor clothing should be worn within the factory.
Jewellery is also a potential hazard – earrings, rings (especially those with stones), necklaces, bracelets, nose ring can all carry bacteria and could potentially fall into product. In most food processing premises only a plain wedding band is permitted to be worn.
Pens and pencils etc. are an additional hazard. If necessary, they should be ‘factory type’( i.e. no loose caps) and should be firmly clipped to an inside pocket to reduce the risk of then accidentally falling into product.
Eating on a production area is a definite no-no. This includes sweets and chewing gum. Separate designated areas should be provided for eating – the same applies to smoking.
Packaging, whether sacks of vegetables or dry ingredients, product wrapped in plastic, polythene, metal fastenings, staples, bottles, cans, crates, plastic or cardboard boxes or the wooden pallets things arrive on, is a potential contaminant. Great care should therefore be taken when unloading, unwrapping or tipping product into processing or mixing equipment.
Ingredients should be unpacked in a separate area from product preparation and waste packaging should be carefully stored or disposed of. If ingredients are to be stored then they should be checked carefully first to make sure that the packaging is not damaged in any way. For example you need to look for rusting or dents in cans and evidence of tears or weaknesses in plastic, paper, polythene or cardboard where pests could potentially get in or product could spill out.
It is also important to ensure that shelving or pallets used to store food is kept clean. Wood pallets used for food should never be used for anything else and they should be cleaned regularly by power washing and heat treatment.
There is far more to cleanliness in a food factory than wiping down preparation surfaces and mopping the floor. Physical hazards in this environment include flaking paint from walls and ceilings; rust from pipework and other equipment; nuts, bolts and worn belts from machines; glass from light fittings, windows and equipment; and other items such as drawing pins and tape etc. from notice boards.
So what can we do to minimise the chances of any of this getting into the product and out to consumers? Firstly the machinery used to be checked and maintained constantly. This will allow any loose nuts or washers to be tightened, frayed belts to be replaced or broken sieve wires to be repaired or replaced.
Secondly we need to consider the fabric of the workplace. Work surfaces should be constructed of material that is easy to clean and other surfaces such as walls and ceilings should be well maintained. Fork lift truck drivers should also take extra care not to hit pillars.
To prevent contamination from glass, diffusers should be used to cover lighting and windows should ideally be constructed from Perspex or wired glass. In the event that glass becomes broken it should be disposed of carefully according to the factory’s glass policy.
Finally any notices or instructions should be placed where they are visible, but away from production lines.
You can find out more about the different hazards presented in a food production environment and how to manage them by visiting our food safety courses page. Why not take Level 2 or Level 3 Food Safety online? The modular format of the course allows you to study at your own pace at a time convenient to you.