News that the Food Standards Agency’s Scores On The Doors scheme is to include convenience stores will no doubt have left many retailers feeling hot under the collar. The initiative aims to improve the hygiene levels of ready-to-eat foods by naming and shaming companies that fail to hit the mark. However, ensuring that safety standards are maintained is no mean feat. So how do you look after your hot food without getting burnt?

Atul Sodha from Londis Harefield near Uxbridge has had bake-off in his store for nearly 15 years and says he’s never had a problem with either staff or food safety. That fact is not down to luck but rather Atul’s firm belief in training: “If we’ve got a new member of staff working on bake-off, I run through the basics with them and see if they need any more training. If I think it might be beneficial I’ll get someone in,” he explains.“We use Country Choice and they’ve been really supportive. I even have a direct number for the trainer so I can get in touch if I have any problems or queries. A new person on bake-off is always fully supervised – after all, investing in them is investing in the shop.”

Temperature control
Hot food must be kept at 63ºC or above – this is a legal requirement in the UK.

When you reheat food, you must make sure it is piping hot all the way through. In Scotland there is a legal requirement for reheated foods to reach at least 82ºC.

When you are serving or displaying hot food, it can be kept below 63ºC for up to two hours; however, you can only do this once. If any food is left after the two hours, you should throw it away, reheat it to 63ºC or above or cool it as quickly as possible to 8ºC or below.

You should only do this if you really need to.
Atul is a stickler for detail: “I’m very diligent and always follow the guidelines. We check temperatures of products coming out of the oven. I like them to be 80°C to be absolutely safe, then they go in the hot cabinet and I like them to be over 60°C in there. How long we keep items in the cabinet varies by product – you can’t keep potato wedges hot for more than an hour, but a sausage roll can last up to three or four hours.” 

Although Atul has had no major safety problems he says you always get little burns. “I tell my staff to use oven gloves at all times; however, sometimes I use a cloth instead – that’s when I get burns.

“Hot food is an absolutely phenomenal business with good margins,” Atul says, “but you can come a cropper. If you don’t have enough product you lose sales and if you have too much you get loads of wastage; it’s a fine balance and that’s where the training and discipline come in. You need to keep focused.”

Matthew Parish, technical manager at Country Choice, reckons it’s perfectly acceptable for c-stores to sell hot food, just as it is for them to sell chilled. But he adds: “The key issue that retailers have to understand is that there are food safety risks and they need to look at how these risks can be controlled and prevented. They must engage with the regulations regarding food safety and apply best practice in terms of controls and procedures. If suitable measures are in place there is no difference between a c-store providing hot food and a takeaway or café doing so.”

The worst-case scenario
● If there’s a suspected case of food poisoning, retailers must ensure that the details of who reported the incident are taken, including their name, address, phone number, symptoms, what food they have consumed and when it was consumed, and determine if any of the food still remains. If it does, get them to preserve a sample in case further investigation is required.
● Remove any product from sale that could potentially be affected. This includes any product made at the same time, or displayed within the same unit at the same time. In addition, any raw materials and ingredients associated with the product(s) concerned should be removed from use and isolated.
● It can prove difficult to suitably quarantine food that may be contaminated, however, so to allow investigations to take place the food should be preserved (by freezing/chilling etc). Care must be taken that further contamination of other products does not take place in the process.
● Once the food has been removed from sale, the site should report the incident to the local authority environmental health team. They will investigate the situation to determine the source of the outbreak and will expect to review your safety procedures, records and documentation. It is advisable to also report the incident to the suppliers of the food products so they can, if necessary, carry out their own investigations and withdraw the product from sale and/or recall it. 
● Finally, if a retailer is not sure what to do when a report of food poisoning occurs, they should request assistance from their local authority, which will advise them as to the correct course of action.

Source: Country Choice
Country Choice recommends that all employees attain an accredited food safety qualification run by their local council, college or an accredited training company. 

“As a minimum, each employee should go through a food safety awareness training session – while these do not have to be accredited, they can provide the basic understanding of how to protect the public and keep food safe. For those individuals supervising others, the NVQ Level 3 Food Safety Qualification is generally accepted as being a requirement as it includes the management of food safety systems and of staff, as well as teaching the food safety risks themselves.”

Parish says the biggest trap for many retailers can be a lack of understanding of food safety legislation and a failure to implement food safety systems. “In theory, all food shops, regardless of whether they’re selling open food or not, should have food safety systems in place. 

Generally, stores selling pre-packed grocery items can get away with limited systems and understanding – however, as soon as hot, chilled or fresh food is introduced, systems need to be robust and auditable and of course appropriate to the operation being carried out.”

As ever, the success of any c-store is dependent upon its staff. Parish says that unfortunately experience shows that when staffing levels are tight – during periods of holiday and sickness, for example – the first thing that can go out of the window is the completion of food safety documentation, because it’s a part of store’s operations that doesn’t generate profit and may be seen as a burden on limited resources. 

When it comes to food poisoning, Parish says ready-to-eat chilled foods actually present a bigger risk than hot food because the heating process kills the majority of food-poisoning bacteria.

Four hours has long been used as the benchmark for holding food in a heated cabinet. Parish says: “While this takes into account the safety of the food, it doesn’t consider the quality. Certain foods will dry out quicker than others and become unpalatable. Items such as bacon, pizza, prepared panini, hot sandwiches or potato products will hold from 45 minutes to a maximum of two hours only, whereas savoury pastries will comfortably sit in heated displays for up to four hours.”

Simon Biddle of Biddles Convenience Store in Webheath, Redditch, specialises in home-made ready meals, pies and cakes.

It’s such an important part of his business that he employs two fully-qualified chefs. In addition, he has five part-timers who do the prepping work for them. His advice to anyone considering going into hot food is simple: “Listen to what the local health authorities tell you. They’re there to help and are a good source of knowledge. Years ago the attitude was that they were ‘against’ us but we’ve found them nothing but helpful. We follow all the procedures, log all the temperatures and practise due diligence, so we’ve nothing to worry about.”

Inspection of food premises is down to local authorities and in particular, environmental health officers. All stores selling food should be registered with their local authority – whether they’re selling ambient, chilled or hot food. It is also a retailer’s duty to keep the authorities notified of a change in business – for example, if you start selling bake-off products for the first time or change your range from bake-off to more sophisticated hot food. Such changes can result in the need for more inspections.

Jenny Morris, principal policy officer at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, says the inspection cycle is dependent on risk – the higher the risk the more visits you can expect. Use of raw materials would present a greater risk, which is why Spar is minimising the use of raw products in its food to go operations and is instead using ingredients such as part-cooked chicken.

Morris insists that environmental health officers are keen to help businesses: “We’re focusing more on helping, supporting and advising businesses, but you have to bear in mind that we’re here to protect the public. If circumstances are really bad we have to take action, but even then we’ll try and help retailers get it right.”

When it comes to action, Morris says it all depends on what the officers find. “We have to ask, ‘Does it put anybody at risk?’. If the answer is yes we will prevent the food being sold and we can take it away for testing. If there’s a problem with equipment we might say you have to get it repaired within a certain period of time. In theory we could close a shop down but that’s relatively rare in retail outlets. It would only happen if we saw rats running around or identified problems with sewage pipework.”

Finally, bear in mind that inspections are always unannounced – not because officers are hoping to catch retailers out, but because they want to see what happens on a normal day of trading. And of course retailers who have fully trained staff and who practice due diligence should have no problem with that whatsoever. 

The law 

Under the Food Hygiene (England) (No. 2) Regulations 2005 (and equivalent regulations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) you must be able to show what you do to make or sell food that is safe to eat, and have this written down.

● You must put in place ‘food safety management procedures’ based on the principles of HACCP (hazard analysis critical control point).
● You must keep these in place permanently, keep documents up to date, and review your procedures if you change what you produce or how you work.

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