What is food safety and why is it important?

Table of Contents

All food business operators should apply the highest possible standards of food safety when preparing food for customers. Ensuring high standards of food safety is critical to the success of a food business, ensuring the safety of customers, avoiding food safety issues and complying with food safety laws.

We will look at:

  • What is food safety?
  • Why is food safety important?
  • The importance of safe food
  • The benefits to a food business of having good food hygiene and safety standards
  • The costs to a food business of having poor food hygiene and safety standards
  • Food poisoning and foodborne illness
  • The Food Hygiene Rating Scheme 

What is food safety?

Food safety refers to proper food handling practices used during the production, processing, and distribution of food. Food safety is concerned with the protection of consumer health and well-being by protecting food from contamination. 

Food contamination can be described as ‘something that should not be there’ because it could cause harm to consumers. Contamination is therefore a food safety hazard. Contamination can occur at any stage of food production, delivery and service. 

Knowing how to control food safety, prevent food safety hazards and avoid food safety issues means knowing which factors might compromise the safety of food. This is where effective food hygiene training comes in.

Contamination of food can occur in various ways. There are four main types of food safety hazards; micro-biological, chemical, physical and allergenic hazards. Let’s consider where these different hazards may come from and how contamination of food might occur:

Microbiological hazards

Microbiological hazards include bacteria, viruses, yeasts, moulds and parasites. Microbiological hazards occur when food becomes contaminated by microorganisms. Common sources of microorganisms include food, water, soil, the air, humans and animals. Many microorganisms are necessary for life but some can become dangerous and cause food poisoning under the right conditions.

Chemical hazards

Chemical hazards involve food being contaminated with some sort of chemical. Common sources of chemical hazards include:

  • The incorrect or excessive use of pesticides used to treat fruit or vegetables
  • Cleaning chemicals that should not be used in a food preparation area. For example; bleach.
  • Residue of cleaning chemicals that may be left on worksurfaces or equipment
  • Spraying of cleaning chemicals next to food items
  • Storing foods in chemical containers instead of using suitable containers
  • Storing opens tins of food in the fridge rather than transferring the food into a suitable container

Physical hazards

Physical hazards can be seen by the consumer. Whilst physical contamination of food may not cause food poisoning it can be distressing for the consumer and is still a food safety issue. Physical hazards may also be harmful to health as they can cause broken teeth, cuts or choking. Even worse, sharp objects such as drawing pins could perforate the liver.

Common sources of physical hazards include:

  • The building. For example; plaster, flakes of paint, pieces of brick, broken glass or tiles, screw fixings
  • Equipment. For example; nuts, bolts, screws, pieces of metal
  • Packaging. For example; pieces of wood, glass, string, staples, elastic bands, plastic, cardboard
  • Food handlers. For example; hair, nail varnish, fingernails, buttons, chewing gum, pens and lids, earrings, jewellery, plasters
  • Products. For example; stones, dirt, feathers, bones, eggshell
  • Pests. For example; bodies, droppings, feathers, eggs

Allergenic hazards

Food allergens are naturally occurring proteins in foods that can cause an abnormal immune response in certain people.

For a food business, it is very important to manage allergens effectively. It is important that anyone who works with foods understands food allergens and how to control them. The Food Standards Agency offers a free online training course in food allergy and intolerance.

Without proper management and control of food safety hazards, foodborne illness, food poisoning and allergic reactions can pose a serious health hazard to consumers.

Why is food safety important?

Food safety plays an important role throughout the entire food supply chain. You don’t have to look far to find stories of where food safety has gone wrong, resulting in some awful outcomes for the individual, their family and the food business in question. 

Beyond the obvious damage caused by a food poisoning outbreak or a customer having an allergic reaction to food, consumer trust in a food business can be severely reduced. Food business operators and food handlers could also face legal action and penalties.

There is no question about it, providing safe food really is essential.

The importance of safe food

Safe food means food which is free from contaminants and will not cause illness harm or injury. No matter what a person’s role is within a food business, their actions can have a direct impact on food safety. Everyone who works with food has a responsibility to protect the health and well-being of customers by protecting food from anything that could cause harm.

In 2016 staff mislabelled a peanut-containing (an allergenic hazard) takeaway with “no nuts”. The result was the death of an allergy sufferer. These disastrous outcomes are why controlling food safety hazards in relation to the provision of food to consumers is so important.

For food business operators, it means they must ensure that food handlers are adequately trained so that they are able to produce safe food. A food business must also have a suitable food safety management system in place to ensure compliance with food safety laws and have processes in place to ensure safe food can be produced.

Benefits of good food hygiene and safety standards

For a food business owner, there are a number of benefits to having good food hygiene and safety standards. These include: 

  • Satisfied customers and repeat custom
  • A good reputation
  • A good food hygiene rating
  • Compliance with food safety legislation/food hygiene legislation and food safety guidelines
  • Increased profits
  • Increased staff morale
  • Reduced staff turnover

Costs of poor food hygiene and safety standards

If a food business owner does not ensure food safety, then there can be serious consequences. These include:

  • A bad reputation
  • Loss of custom
  • Reduced profits
  • Low staff morale
  • High staff turnover
  • Increased risk of food poisoning outbreaks or allergic reactions
  • Legal action and penalties such as heavy fines or imprisonment
  • Possible closure of the business
  • Increased food wastage
  • Increase in customer complaints
  • Increased frequency of food hygiene inspections
  • A low food hygiene rating

Food poisoning and foodborne illnesses

The bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses/food poisoning are called pathogenic bacteria. Both foodborne illness and food poisoning can put the health of consumers at risk.

Food poisoning is an illness caused by eating contaminated, unsafe food. That is food in which bacteria have multiplied to unsafe levels. The onset time for symptoms of food poisoning to appear is often just a few hours after eating contaminated food. Food poisoning can last from 24 hours to several days, sometimes even longer. Food poisoning symptoms commonly include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and fever.

Food-borne illness is an illness caused by pathogenic bacteria or viruses that are carried on food. These bacteria or viruses do not multiply in the food but instead, they multiply inside the person who has eaten the food. The onset time for symptoms of food-borne illness to appear is longer than for food poisoning. The symptoms are more wide-ranging than for food poisoning and they also include symptoms such as flu-like symptoms, headaches, rashes and organ failure.

The consequences of food poisoning and food-borne illness can be much more severe for elderly people, very young children and babies, pregnant women and people with a weakened immune system. 

Food Hygiene Rating Scheme

The Food Hygiene Rating Scheme is operated in England by the Food Standards Agency (the UK food regulatory body) in partnership with Local Governmental Authorities. Food safety officers or Environmental Health Officers will carry out a business’s food hygiene inspection. They are responsible for the enforcement of food safety in most food businesses in the U.K.

Under the scheme, once an eligible food business has received its food hygiene inspection it will receive a rating. The ratings range from 0 (urgent improvement necessary) to 5 (hygiene standards are very good). During an inspection, the officer will consider how well the business is complying with the law. There are three areas that are assessed:

  1. Structure. The officer will look at things including:
    • Are the premises and equipment clean and in good condition?
    • Does kitchen design allow for adequate separation between raw foods and cooked foods?
    • Is there adequate refrigeration for perishable foods?
    • Are all surfaces food safe and easy to clean?
    • Are pest control and waste control effectively managed?
  2.   Food Safety Management. The officer will look at things including:
    • Are staff adequately trained and/ or supervised in relation to food safety?
    • Is an adequate food safety management system based on the principles of  HACCP in place?
    • Are adequate food safety records in place? This includes fridge/ freezer temperature records, delivery records, cooking temperature records and opening and closing checks.
  3. Hygiene. The officer will look at things including:
    • Are food handlers maintaining high food safety standards including good personal hygiene and regular hand washing using hot soapy water?
    • Are ready-to-eat foods stored and prepared separately from raw foods? For example; is raw meat stored and prepared away from cooked meat?
    • Are foods stored at a safe temperature and labelled correctly?
    • Are foods being cooked, cooled and reheated safely? This may include checking the internal temperature of food with a food thermometer or temperature probe.

A  key reason why a food business may get a low rating is that they don’t have the necessary food safety systems in place or they are not following safe systems in practice. This is covered in more detail in 11 tips for a successful food hygiene inspection

More information on the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme is available on the Food Standards Agency website.

Summary

Food safety is concerned with the protection of consumer health and well-being by protecting food from contamination. Everyone who works with food has a responsibility to protect the health and well-being of customers by protecting food from anything that could cause harm. This will help to reduce the chance of food poisoning, foodborne illness and allergic reactions. 

It is therefore important that anyone working with food is suitably trained to prepare food safely, has an awareness of the main food safety hazards relevant to their job role and maintains high standards of personal hygiene. A food business should have an effective food safety management system in place.

The are many benefits to a business of having good food and safety hygiene standards. This includes maintaining a good reputation, a good food hygiene rating and compliance with food safety laws. Likewise, there are costs to a business with poor food hygiene standards, including a bad reputation, loss of custom, risk of food poisoning outbreaks, a low food hygiene rating and possible closure of the business.

Need Food Hygiene Training?

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