Experts reveal top food safety mistakes made by hospitality staff and the public

Examiners of food safety qualifications for RSPH have revealed the most common and hazardous mistakes made by hospitality staff and the general public when it comes to handling food safely.

This news comes as RSPH launches a new e-learning course in Food Safety. The course is aimed primarily at the UK’s burgeoning hospitality workforce – now an estimated three million strong – but is of great benefit to anyone who handles food as part of their work and is concerned about the public’s health.

Aside from the single most prevalent and remediable hygiene mistake – failing to regularly and thoroughly wash one’s hands – some of the most common and hazardous mistakes made by the public were:

  1. “If it looks alright and smells alright, you can eat it” 
    A dangerous mistake encountered frequently by RSPH examiners is thinking that dangerous pathogens in food must be detectable through sight, smell, or indeed taste. In fact, many of the most harmful and widespread pathogens can cause severe illness and even death when present only in very low numbers which don’t affect the taste, appearance, smell, or texture of the food at all.
  2. Using one pair of tongs for a BBQ 
    As summer reaches full swing, many BBQ chefs will tend to spread pathogens via their equipment, by handling raw meat, cooked meat, and sometimes even salads all with the same tongs. Though most people know to avoid this cross-contamination – and would do so in their own kitchen – this practice often goes out the window when the BBQ lights up.
  3. Failing to segregate raw and ready-to-eat foods 
    Food safety experts told RSPH that, though strict food segregation is well enforced in the catering industry, much of the general public do not appreciate the elevated risks of food poisoning that come with even slight mixing of raw meat with ready-to-eat food. Campylobacter – the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK – is found on the outside packaging of 5.7% of supermarket chickens, highlighting the importance of segregating food from the moment it hits the shopping trolley.
  4. Washing raw chicken
    Campylobacter, found on nearly 60% of supermarket chicken, will be killed by thorough cooking, but could spread throughout a kitchen when people try to wash their raw chicken under the tap.
  5. Pets in the kitchen
    This is a common practice in domestic kitchens. Even in homes where pets are kept off work surfaces they will still spread all kinds of pathogens, and ideally should be kept out of kitchens entirely.

According to RSPH food safety examiners, the main areas of misunderstanding and malpractice among caterers were:

  1. Buffets can be a hot-bed for bacteria
    Bacteria thrive in temperatures between 5 and 63°C – the danger zone – and failing to swiftly cool cooked food below this limit is a high risk factor for food poisoning. Buffet restaurants which leave their dishes out for more than an hour or two are alarmingly commonplace examples of this, and have been described by some examiners as the number one practice among caterers putting people’s health at danger.
  2. Continuing to work when ill
    In many food-handling workplace environments there is an inadequate understanding of infectious diseases, and how easily they can be spread by an infected member of staff entering the kitchen – even if they are no longer visibly ill. Though the onus is on food-handlers to report when they have or have recently had an illness, there is a danger that pressures to not lose out on work, particularly among zero-hours-contract workers, are leading many to overlook this.
  3. Inadequate understanding of the controls necessary to prevent allergen contamination 
    Though food poisoning affects the public’s health in far greater numbers than allergens, the UK still sees around ten deaths per year due to undeclared allergenic ingredients, and a great deal more near-death incidents. Food safety experts believe that in many food environments there is insufficient understanding of the controls needed to prevent allergen contamination, and highlighted the need for watertight communication channels between front-of-house, waiting, and kitchen staff when dealing with customer allergen information.
  4. Re-use of unclean cloths for cleaning surfaces
    In many catering establishments, staff will simply leave cleaning cloths to dry overnight and then reuse them day after day, a prime risk for spreading pathogens all around a food-handling setting. Instead, staff need to have adequate procedures for ensuring that cleaning products are themselves kept clean.
  5. Temperature checking
    When monitoring food temperature, catering staff may just check the temperature of the fridge; but this often leads to mistake – it is the food itself which must be probed.

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive, RSPH said: “The UK continues to have some of the highest standards when it comes to handling and preparing food safely. While many catering professionals have an excellent understanding of food safety regulations and best practice, it is worrying to hear some of the most common and hazardous mistakes and misconceptions which persist.”

Dr Richard Burton, Director of Qualifications, RSPH said: “Ideally, staff in the hospitality industry would have received food safety training and a relevant qualification before they started working in the industry. For those who haven’t our new e-learning package will be an effective and convenient method of food safety training which will enable them to take a qualification with confidence.”


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