The term food hygiene has been defined, by Codex Alimentarius (an international organisation for the development of food standards and guidelines) as “all conditions and measures necessary to ensure the safety and suitability of food at all stages of the food chain.”
As will be seen from this definition the term “food hygiene” encompasses a wide range of measures that can be applied from the growth of food products and the raising of food animals, through harvesting and slaughter, processing, delivery, storage and final sale. However, for many, food hygiene will be equated with cleanliness; the cleanliness of food premises and food handlers.
Whilst the cleanliness of those who handle food and their equipment and surroundings is essential for good food hygiene to occur it is only one of the measures necessary if food is to be safely prepared.
Of equal or perhaps even more importance in maintaining good standards of food hygiene is the avoidance of cross-contamination and good temperature control. Cross-contamination is the passing of food poisoning bacteria from contaminated, usually raw food to ready-to-eat food. Such cross-contamination can occur in three ways, direct contact of e.g. raw meat with ready-to-eat food, the drip of raw food juices such as blood onto a ready-to-eat food and the use of unwashed hands or equipment to handle both raw food and ready-to-eat food.
Good temperature control is essential if satisfactory standards of food hygiene are to be achieved. In most investigations that occur following the outbreak of a food-borne disease a failure in temperature control is identified as one of causes of the event. Foods which are suitable media for the growth of pathogenic (disease producing) bacteria – mainly moist high protein foods such as meat, eggs and dairy products – must be kept either cold or hot. They should not be allowed to languish in the danger zone between 5°C – 63°C for any longer than absolutely necessary.
This means that good food hygiene practices will include the correct storage of cold food at 5°C or below and hot food at 63°C or above. Good food hygiene will also require that food is properly cooked and if not used straightaway that it is cooled quickly to 5°C and if reheated later that this is done quickly to a good temperature.
As far as cooking and reheating temperatures are concerned for potentially contaminated foods, like raw meat and poultry, the usual recommendations in food hygiene textbooks is 75°C for 30 seconds.
Besides cleanliness, temperature control and the avoidance of cross contamination food hygiene measures will also include a safe supply of water for food preparation and cleaning, pest control and the proper training of staff in the principles of food hygiene.
The modern approach to food hygiene puts considerable emphasis on food safety management systems, which are designed to provide assurance that the correct food hygiene practices are always in place. The internationally accepted HACCP approach is now incorporated as a mandatory requirement in Food Hygiene Regulations across the globe. HACCP stands for “Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point” and is a system that establishes the stages in the food business that is absolutely essential (critical) for food safety and seeks to control and monitor them. Such critical controls might include thorough cooking of food, avoidance of cross-contamination and adequate refrigeration of perishable items etc.
So food hygiene really is a wide discipline and its implementation requires commitment and investment in time and money by those who carry the responsibility of providing and preparing food for consumption by the public.