Following correct procedures will ensure you maintain a healthy and prosperous food-to-go operation, says Amy Lanning

The UK may not match the US when it comes to suing as a result of even the most minor wrongdoing, but we still live in a litigious society where one bad move could leave you with a writ.

When cooking and preparing food for sale, sticking to the letter of the law is of prime importance - if you let standards slip, a customer could get more than they bargained for when they buy a pasty or fresh baguette from your store.

Stephen Hatton, product manager at Country Choice, says the key areas facing bake-off and food-to-go retailers are cleanliness and temperature control: "Retailers run the risk of loss of sales and customers if they don't keep their premises clean, and may face prosecution in some cases," he warns. "The recent focus on food safety means that customers will only purchase food from outlets where they believe it's safe to do so."

An in-store 'hygiene programme' is therefore vital to maintain a healthy operation, and Country Choice offers retailers the Choice Essentials range, which includes everything needed for a hygienic and professional operation - from handwash systems to industrial oven cleaners.

"A retailer's customer base is built up through trust, and one of the biggest influences on customers is the cleanliness of the operation," says Hatton. "Our team of bakery technicians visit retailers to help them construct daily, weekly and monthly hygiene, control and training routines."

Hatton adds that some retailers make the mistake of using domestic cleaners picked off their household cleaning fixture. "Industrial cleaning products come with a COSHH [Control of Substances Hazardous to Health] safety data sheet, which highlights the chemicals and dosage in each product, so should a retailer have an accident and get some fluid in their eyes, for example, they can take this safety data sheet to the hospital and the doctor will know exactly how to treat them. You don't have any of that with cleaning chemicals straight off the shelf and it's difficult to find that information on the internet."

Selling hot food products at the correct core temperature is a legal requirement according to the Food Safety Act. The minimum acceptable temperature should be no less than +82ºC when baked and +63ºC when displayed in a heated display unit. "It's essential when baking any product containing meat that you check the heat has penetrated all the way through the product," explains Hatton. "Using a temperature probe ensures that the products are monitored at the correct temperature. Probe wipes must also be used to sterilise the probe before inserting it into each product, as this reduces the chance of cross-contamination."

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) launched a Safer food, better business pack for small retailers last year, helping them to comply with food hygiene regulations. These regulations - introduced in January 2006 - dictate that retailers must be able to show what they do to sell food that is safe to eat, and have this written down. The pack guides retailers through all the steps they must take to ensure (and prove) they have a safe food-to-go operation.

"Using the report in your business will help you to comply with the law, show what you do to sell food that is safe to eat, train staff, protect your business's reputation and improve your business by wasting less food," the packs advise. "You do not need lots of daily records. Once you have worked through the pack and completed all the relevant safe methods, you only need to fill in the diary each day. This should take one minute unless you have something special to write down. Remember that you also need to keep all the invoices and receipts for any food products you buy."

The FSA pack stresses the importance of handling unwrapped ready-to-eat foods safely - foods that will not be cooked or reheated before they're eaten, such as sandwiches and salads. "Make sure work surfaces and knives are clean, and disinfected if you have prepared raw meat or poultry, and protect food from dirt and bacteria by covering it or keeping it in suitable display equipment."

When it comes to selling ready-to-eat foods, ensuring they're kept cold enough so that harmful bacteria can't grow is paramount.­ The FSA recommends that fridges and chilled display equipment should be set at 5ºC or below to ensure that chilled food is kept below 8ºC, which is the legal requirement in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Ready-to-eat food should never be sold after the use-by date - it's illegal to do so. For sandwiches and other food you have prepared, and for food that's been removed from its original packaging, you must have a method of labelling to keep track of when food should be sold or thrown away.

If you slice cooked meat, slicers need careful cleaning and disinfecting to prevent dirt building up and to stop harmful bacteria growing on the slicing blade. Avoid handling the meat as much as possible and slice meat straight onto the display tray or the plastic film (or paper) you will use to wrap it. Use clean tongs, never your hands.

When preparing salad ingredients, peel, trim or remove the outer parts as appropriate and wash them thoroughly in clean drinking-quality water. If you have prepared salad ingredients that have dirt or soil on the outside, you must clean chopping boards and work surfaces before preparing other foods. 

With bake-off products, reheating and hot-holding, it's important to make sure suitable equipment is used or the food may not become hot enough to kill bacteria, and may not be kept at a safe temperature. It's important to pre-heat the equipment because putting food into cold hot-holding units means it may not be kept hot enough to prevent harmful bacteria from growing.

The FSA's Safer food, better business pack advises: "Follow the product manufacturer's instructions on times and temperatures for cooking, reheating and standing. If you provide a microwave for customers to reheat food, it is a good idea to supply instructions.

Products should be thoroughly cooked and piping hot before hot-holding begins."

Training

RetailPlus has just launched a range of training packages to encourage food hygiene best practice throughout the grocery retail sector.

The Certificate in Practical Food Safety covers the importance of food safety, good practice guidelines, microbiology and food-borne illnesses, contamination and prevention of illness, and personal hygiene.

Looking at more specific areas, the Certificate in Chilled Foods and Certificate in Fresh Foods also focus on food safety and include training on receiving and storing foods, merchandising, stock control and controlling waste.

More information

For more information on running a safe food-to-go operation, you can talk to the environmental health service at your local authority or visit www.food.gov.uk/retail. You can order one of the Food Standards Agency's Safer food, better business for retailers packs by calling 0845 606 0667 or emailing foodstandards@ecgroup.uk.com.

Essential maintenance

It is vital that you:
- Have a handwash system in place
- Sanitise work surfaces regularly
- Wash down equipment throughout the day
- Always check the temperature of products using a probe thermometer
- De-grease ovens regularly
- Have the correct first aid kit close to hand
- Use blue wiper roll for hygienic cleaning
- Ensure consistent portion control

Source: Country Choice

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