Great British Bake Off Beards?

beardAs the popular TV programme, Great British Bake Off, returned to our television screens last week, a number of irate viewers took to social media in order to protest about some of the excessive hair on display by some of the show’s contestants.

I was approached by the Daily Mail for an expert opinion on the food safety practices of the show, but particularly pertaining to viewers concerns over excessive facial hair exhibited by some of the programme’s contestants.

Firstly, I would like to say that I do not know any of the contestants personally. Neither am I against “Great British Bake Off”, individual expression, beards per se, or against anyone who chooses to wear them. My observations and comments are solely in relation to beards and facial hair within the context of food safety and food hygiene.

When I started my career as a commis chef back in the mid-nineties, beards were out of fashion, most of my colleagues were clean shaven. Those who were not clean shaven might have sported a small goatee or discreet box beard. In recent years, however, the full beard has enjoyed somewhat of a comeback. More and more male celebrities are sporting a full beard and consequently this has led to a huge rise in younger men growing and maintaining a beard, and as such, this has now become a topical issue and subject of debate among food safety professionals, caterers and the general public alike.

What’s the big deal?

Some people have argued that there is no difference between having a long beard and long hair. But that is just the point! If I order a meal, and the chef has a long beard, just the same as if the chef had long hair, I would expect the chef to keep their beard and hair under wraps. That is a perfectly logical and reasonable request. I’m not insisting that all male chefs and cooks are clean shaven! What I am saying is that if a chef chooses to wear a long beard, then as with long hair, they should keep it covered. Within food manufacturing, snoods are common practice.

Generally speaking, the public perception is that beards are dirty! If a chef who is preparing my food, has a long beard then I would expect it to be covered – and here’s why:

Long beards tend to encourage scratching and fondling (which soon can become a subconscious habit). Scratching and frequent itching can subsequently cause loose hairs to fall out into food. Furthermore, pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus; which are prevalent on human skin, nose, throat and hair, can then be transferred onto food, introducing both a physical and microbiological food safety hazard.

At CaterSafe Consultants, our client base is diverse, and range from small pubs and restaurants to supermarkets and large corporate organisations. Organisational requirements vary. Some of our clients will insist that their male members of staff are clean shaven; others do not have much of an issue with well-groomed, small beards, but frown upon excessive facial hair. Some business owners believe it to be a non-issue. In reality, it comes down to what is best practice. The question we should be asking is, “what is best for our customers?” Consumers rightly expect the food they eat to not only to be of a high standard – but ultimately, food which is prepared, cooked and finished by clean food handlers, to be safe to eat and free from contaminants, whatever those contaminants maybe. It is vital that we do not jettison hygiene for vanity – the vanity of the chef should not take precedence over the safety and enjoyment of the food. The safety of the food is always the axiom, and starting point for everything.

We need to recognise that some people have to grow a beard, perhaps because of sensitive skin, which makes shaving impossible. But there is a difference between a short, well-trimmed beard, and a beard which is long and unkempt. In every instance common sense should always prevail.

Cookery TV programmes?

Some people have commented on the fact that the food produced on the BBC TV show, Great British Bake Off, isn’t offered for sale to the general public, and that such programmes are just a bit of fun and are supposed to be light entertainment. This is true to a point, and a dichotomy exists between food for public and domestic consumption, and amateur bakers baking for fun on a TV programme and those baking or cooking in the commercial sector. The problem is that the majority of viewers do not make this distinction. The exponential rise in TV cookery programmes within the last decade has made the potential access to good food more achievable to everyone. However, that is just the point. Cookery shows are not merely entertainment – they are also educational, therefore the hygiene practices carried out on these shows must be of the highest standard possible. It is not acceptable to ignore good food safety practices or be cavalier with food hygiene on the grounds of entertainment; most people take their cue from, and imitate what they see on TV, this particular form of mass media carries a lot of weight. Winking at poor hygiene practices does send out the wrong message.

During my career, I have worked as a professional chef, and now, as an educator and specialist trainer of chefs and food safety consultant. One of the frequent problems that I encounter is students with a poor attitude to food hygiene practice. Many have adopted bad habits from watching “celebrity” chefs on the TV and think that good food is all about taste and presentation, not the welfare of the person that is expected to eat it. It’s paramount that good hygiene practices should be demonstrated by chefs and contestants on TV as their behaviour does influence viewers.

Appearance

It is vital that chefs take pride in their appearance. An unkempt, untidy appearance often reflects a slovenly attitude, which can extend into other areas, including food preparation, storage, and temperature control. Having a large beard really is not an issue, provided it is washed, well groomed, and covered with a snood whilst preparing food.

Listen to Sam Turner’s light hearted exchange with popular American bearded chef Timmy Malloy and presenter Stephen Nolan on BBC Radio 5 Live.