Thursday, 18 October 2012

Dealing with E.coli by The Safer Food Group

Monsters in the Kitchen - E. coli

As we approach Halloween and all things ghoulish, let’s focus on monsters closer to home. Monsters in the kitchen that you can neither see, taste or smell.......bacteria. And how bacteria within food or transported by food can have a detrimental effect on your business if not handled safely.

Food poisoning and food-borne disease are illnesses resulting from the consumption of contaminated food, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or parasites that contaminate food. One good example, or should that be bad is Escherichia coli otherwise known as E. coli.
E. coli bacterium normally lives inside your intestines and in the intestines of animals where it helps the body break down and digest food. Unfortunately, certain mutant strains of the bacteria (E. coli 0157) can get from the intestines into the blood and can cause a very serious infection. In most recent cases outbreaks are occurring where there is direct contact with animals even at petting zoos where simple personal hygiene rules have not been followed…..a nasty trick from a day out treat! Rules of hygiene apply across all high-risk foods and how they are handled and prepared.  Food safety rules must be meticulously followed to prevent contamination at all points of contact from the farmer to the consumer.

A recent E. coli outbreak in the UK saw the infection accrue sufferers over an 8 month period. After thorough investigation although it was impossible to assess a key source of contamination, strong links were made to handling of loose leeks and potatoes, it is possible people caught the infection from cross-contamination in storage, not washing the vegetables or hand washing after handling the vegetables, or even by cleaning equipment after preparing the vegetables. In this instance of the 250 affected almost half were under 16 years of age. As is the case with most food-borne illnesses the particularly vulnerable are the young or the old, but this study highlights just how many points in the chain at which contamination is spreadable.

E. coli 0157 has got to be one of the best ‘baddies’ out there, you don’t need to ingest many of the individual organisms to get sick, only 10 individual organisms could have a nasty effect on a human whereas over 1000 organisms carrying Salmonella would need to be ingested to have an effect. In the UK serious outbreaks of food-borne illness since the 1970s have prompted key changes in UK food safety law, such as BSE (mad cow disease) outbreaks in the 1980s and E. coli continuing to this day to make regular headline appearances; in May 2011 in Germany the E. Coli 0157 bacteria was ingested by 80 people with hundreds of others infected, chiefly females which at the time gave rise to the thinking that the line of the harmful bacteria came from contaminated salad, not reason enough to stop eating your greens!

So it isn’t down to the food itself, something hideously inedible like ‘eye of newt’ or ‘wing of bat’ would be healthy as long as it has been farmed, prepared and served in a safe way. E. coli 0157 is a haunting organism indeed but awareness takes away the scare-ness and following rules of good food hygiene means that the useful side of E coli can busy away helping our bodies produce Vitamin K, and it can be a star pupil in the eyes of micro-biology and stay out of the headlines in the future.
Causes of Contamination
E. coli can be passed from person to person, but serious E. coli infection is more often linked to food containing the bacteria. The person eats the contaminated food and gets sick. As a team working within this field for a long time, we've been in kitchens before and seen thing picked up and served that have been dropped or hot holding at insufficient temperatures. You can get handovers where one team has no idea how long a batch of food has been hot held for or cooked for, and plenty worse.

Some foods that can cause E. coli poisoning:
  •  undercooked ground beef (used for hamburgers)
  • vegetables grown in cow manure or washed in contaminated water
  • fruit juice that isn't pasteurized

A food item can come from an unknown source, even if you know where your meat or produce is coming from – can you guarantee the safe handling and production levels are enforced in that location? Has the food been stored or packaged correctly? Are high-risk foods stored separately and safely within your kitchen to prevent contamination? Do all staff involved in preparing the food or using the food, wash their hands after contact with the food item?
  •        Bacterial Contamination can occur when raw food comes into contact with high risk food: examples are meat, poultry, eggs, shellfish, milk and dairy products, cooked rice, pasta and any product made from the foods listed
  •       Raw foods are contaminated by bacteria found in the natural environment
  •       Pathogenic bacteria are transferred from raw food to high risk food at any stage of food handling by what we call vehicles of contamination; this could be from unwashed hands, utensils or surfaces.
  •       When liquid or juices from raw food comes into contact with high risk food.

It is important to remember though, that not all types of bacteria are harmful, most types of bacteria are beneficial to humans and we would find it difficult to live without them. Bacteria for the purpose of Level 2 Food Hygiene standard are split into three groups; ‘helpful’ bacteria, ‘spoilage’ bacteria, and ‘pathogenic’ bacteria.

Helpful bacteria allow us to grow crops, produce food including yoghurt, cheese and fizzy drinks. They allow us to digest the food we eat, create medical drugs, and even treat sewage to make safe. Spoilage bacteria makes food perish, a good example of this is the green mould you will see on bread that is a few days old. Identifying where harmful bacteria can come from, being aware of how to store, monitor and handle these high risk foods is vital for reducing risk of contamination.

Contamination can go right back to the first process in the chain, such as growing, slaughtering, harvesting, processing, packing, delivering, storing, preparing, cooking, displaying, serving and selling. There are so many variables to track from source to plate that the responsibility lies within the individual at each stage. It is imperative that food safety rules are followed ensuring all those who are in contact with food are aware of the dangers and their own responsibilities for not allowing bacteria to develop, contaminate and spread. It is the only policy for a food safe and infection free work place.

How to prevent E.Coli contamination?
Heat can kill E. coli, so experts recommend that people cook beef (especially ground beef) until it is cooked through and no longer pink. Choosing pasteurized juice or milk is another way to avoid possible infection. Some experts recommend washing and scrubbing vegetables before eating them. But others say E. coli is hard to remove once it has contaminated produce, such as spinach, lettuce, or onions.
The answer for your establishment is so simple that it’s easily missed.  You must put systems and procedures in place that eliminate or drastically reduce the risks to your customers:

  1. Implement a Food Safety Management System that defines the correct safe preparation, cooking and hot holding procedure for each dish you produce.
  2. Train up your team to run and adhere to the system making sure everyone follows it, no exceptions.
  3. Ensuring all your staff have at least Level 2 food handler training to have a basic understanding of cross contamination.
A quick guide to Cooking, reheating and hot holding
Most of this you would call common sense.  The problem is that common sense isn't all that common, and as such is often assumed that guidelines will be followed on a day to day basis and not always enforced.  Here’s our fundamental guidance on cooking, reheating and hot-holding that everyone in your kitchen should know:

Life saving cooking facts
1.       Always make sure you cook to 75 degrees for 2 minutes at the food’s core
2.       Use a food probe to test temperature and make sure it’s cleaned after each use.
3.       The safest restaurants will 100% test every dish, every plate that’s served

Life saving reheating facts
1.       Reheating means cooking food again and to the correct temperature
2.       The correct temperature is the same as cooking, its 75°C or higher for 2 minutes
3.       Remember that you can only reheat food once

Life saving hot-holding facts
1.       Food must be cooked or reheated correctly before hot holding.
2.       Food must be kept above 63°C at all times.
3.       As with an oven or grill, you must preheat hot holding equipment before use.


Running a commercial kitchen without a Food Safety Management System, working food temperature probe, and well trained staff, is like driving a car around with all the airbags turned off and the seat belt removed.  You are placing your livelihood and customers in unnecessary jeopardy.  Sooner or later you are going to either be stopped by the authorities, or crash rather spectacularly.  

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