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Quick-frozen peas welded into a solid block

This is a clear indication of temperature abuse and a break down in the cold chain, writes Richard Sprenger, adding that as supermarkets evolve to meet customer expectations, the hazards and risks increase

| | Mar 24, 2020 | 9:29 am
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Richard Sprenger

Supermarkets and hypermarkets deal with thousands of food products from sources all over the world, and they must maintain the highest standards to ensure the food they sell is of the best quality, has a good shelf life, is suitably packaged/labelled and, above all, is safe to eat.

As supermarkets evolve to meet customer expectations – for example, importing fruit and produce from countries that may have hygiene issues, or providing self-service displays of hot and cold food to take away or, in some cases, to consume on the premises – the hazards and risks increase.

The “traditional hazards” of contamination – microbiological, chemical and physical – and bacterial multiplication are still present, but those supermarkets cooking food and providing self-service displays of open high-risk food must also control microbiological survival and provide more resources to protect customers with allergies.

As a food safety inspector for over 30 years, I have audited thousands of retail businesses, including supermarkets and hypermarkets, in the Middle East, and my comments in this article are made as a result of this experience and the many hours I have spent observing staff, managers and customer practice.

SOURCING SAFE FOOD

Ensuring that the food purchased by supermarkets is free from contamination and produced under the best hygienic conditions is the starting point for selling safe food. This may mean receiving assurances that the irrigation water used on the farms that grow produce is guaranteed to be free from sewage pollution – animal or human – that food is protected from wild animal droppings and that workers are provided with suitable facilities, including toilets and hand-washing stations. Shellfish must be certified to have been harvested from unpolluted waters. Processed food must be obtained from factories that operate to the highest standards of hygiene – effectively apply HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) – are regularly audited by enforcement officers and are certified by third-party auditors against GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) standards.

Occasionally, food from a country considered a safe source can become potentially unsafe, and the food can result in food poisoning/food complaints and recalls. Examples include, raspberries contaminated with norovirus, frozen berries contaminated with Hepatitis A, tomatoes/ lettuce/eggs contaminated with salmonella and beansprouts contaminated with E. coli O104. What systems does the supermarket have in place to research such incidents and ensure that they are not being supplied with food that is now suspected of being contaminated?

MAINTAINING THE COLD CHAIN

Although the standards of UAE supermarkets are usually very high, occasional failings are apparent. How often have you noticed displayed frozen food, such as packets of individual quick-frozen peas that are soft or welded into a solid block? This is a clear indication of temperature abuse and a break down in the cold chain. Provided your supplier is approved/certified, then the first likely explanation is the delivery vehicle. Was the refrigeration equipment turned off to save fuel on a long journey? Were the doors on the vehicle left open for too long, or did the unloading and transfer to the freezer at the supermarket take too long? Finally, was the product stored above, or in front of, the load line? It is essential to check the product before it is unloaded, and chilled or frozen product should only be accepted when delivered in vehicles that have temperature monitoring systems that provide continuous in-transit monitoring readings from loading to unloading. Frozen food should be maintained at or below -18 degrees C, and chilled food at or below 5 degrees C.

Unloading and transfer of chilled and frozen product requires an effective system and management by the supermarket, and product should never be left on the loading bay. Raw frozen food should not rise above -10 degrees C, and chilled food should never be above 5 degrees C for longer than 20 minutes. Supermarkets should ensure that chilled display cabinets are maintained below 5 degrees C and freezers below -18 degrees C. Wireless automated temperature monitoring systems with alarms and alerts should be fitted as a norm.

CONTAMINATION

Prevention of all forms of contamination requires good design and maintenance of premises and equipment, staff training and effective management. Most modern supermarkets are well designed and maintained in the public areas, but occasionally, there are problems in storage and preparation areas, to which the public do not have access. Chemical contamination can arise from inappropriate cleaning – for example, using the wrong chemicals – or from poor pest control. Physical contamination is usually due to poor personal hygiene and practices, poor maintenance and cleaning, and worn, rusty or defective equipment. Use of inexperienced pest operatives can result in dead insects ending up in food – for example, siting of electric fly killers (EFKs) above food or preparation areas or use of insecticide aerosols. EFKs should be fitted with glue boards, replaced regularly, rather than using “electrocution”, which can scatter insect parts several metres. Once again, most of these problems are likely to occur in back rooms.

Microbiological contamination is most likely to occur owing to poor staff training and management. Poor personal hygiene, especially poor hand hygiene, incorrect use of colour-coded equipment and using the same wiping cloth for raw and high-risk food contact surfaces are clear violations. The commonest microbiological contamination is probably from customers. I have regularly observed customers handling open displayed bread and cakes and not purchasing them. I have seen customers cough and sneeze over open food, and fruit is often “smelt”, with the nose touching the fruit. I have seen children with dirty hands and runny noses touching and even licking sweets and pastries. However small, there is certainly a risk of some viruses, such as norovirus, and some food-poisoning bacteria that can cause illness, with very small numbers being transmitted from these actions, but they are certainly unacceptable aesthetically.

Allergenic contamination is a growing threat as a result of increased susceptibility and awareness but also the more recent practice of open food displays, where customers use utensils to serve themselves. Using the same tongs to pick up allergenic and non-allergenic food can transfer sufficient allergen to cause a serious reaction to a susceptible customer. Additionally, cross-contamination from dropping allergenic food into non-allergenic food is also likely. Most allergy sufferers will avoid displays of this type in the same way they avoid buffets at hotels – the risk is too great. Incidentally, most food recalls now occur because of food labelling failing to include allergens that are present in the food.

STRATEGIES FOR IMPROVING STANDARDS

As previously stated, the food safety standards of most modern supermarkets in the UAE are high. They are well designed, constructed and maintained. They are clean, and most have good system/policies for cleaning, pest control, temperature control and for preventing contamination. Most effectively implement food safety management systems built on the principles of HACCP. However, improvements are usually achievable.

Standards are a reflection on the commitment and support of the owners and the competence of managers. Certification of businesses, systems and staff without commitment and competence can give a false impression of standards. Certificates of managers and staff who have attended training but do not implement what they have been taught are likely to be a waste of money. Each department should have a competent manager qualified in food safety (level 3), who ensures staff always implement good practice and who provides daily on-the-job training. Rewards for good practice and punishment for bad practice will help develop a positive food safety culture. The manager should keep up to date with the latest regulatory and food safety requirements. Policies and procedures should be based on science.

Finally, managers should be trained to undertake monthly, comprehensive internal audits to ensure regulatory compliance and the sale of safe, good quality food. Food businesses should not have to rely on periodic visits from enforcement officers/auditors to advise them of unsatisfactory practices and contraventions. The number of contraventions/non-conformances identified by external auditors can be used as a measure of the competence of manager and/or the resources/support of owners for food safety.

 

CPI Industry accepts no liability for the views or opinions expressed in this column, or for the consequences of any actions taken on the basis of the information provided here.


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