What is Acrylamide?

We’ve all done it. We’ve popped the bread in the toaster and gone away and forgotten about it. The next thing we know, the smoke alarm’s going off and our toast resembles a lump of charcoal. Some of us will consign it to the dustbin, but others adhere to the old adage, waste not want not, and continue to consume it, attempting to overcome the burnt flavour with lashings of their favoured topping.

For years, there have been rumours circulating that burnt toast is carcinogenic but, realistically, is there any evidence for this?

Studies have shown that a chemical called acrylamide is formed naturally when starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures (anything above 120˚C). Food items that this applies to are potatoes in various forms, e.g. roast, chips, crisps etc., bread and some cereal products. The sugars in the foods react with naturally occurring amino acids when exposed to high temperatures to form acrylamide.

Scientists tested the impact of acrylamide on rodents and it was found that exposure to the chemical increased the risk of developing several types of cancer quite significantly. As a consequence of these results, food scientists are concerned that this evidence indicates there is a potential cancer risk to humans. There are a few caveats to this, however. It should be noted that the rodents were subjected to exceptionally large doses of the chemical, doses which would be far greater than any amount contained in your Sunday roast potatoes or a bag of crisps, for example. Studies in humans are still incomplete and are, at present, inconclusive. It is impossible to say that a chemical will affect animals and humans in exactly the same way so the results must be considered rationally and cautiously, but it is sensible to pay attention to the scientific findings and take some precautions.

This year, the Food Standards Agency has launched a campaign called, ‘Go for gold’. Contrary to how it might sound, they are not encouraging people to enter the Olympics, but have issued guidelines on how to attain the optimum shade of gold when cooking your starchy foods. With any form of cooking, whether it be frying, roasting or toasting, the goal should be to achieve a light golden colour. Cooking starchy food for too long and at too high a temperature will increase the amount of acrylamide. They also advise against keeping potatoes in the fridge as this can cause the sugars to multiply, thus raising the amount of acrylamide in the end product once cooked. Always check the guidelines on the packet when cooking things like oven chips. The food industry is attempting to do what it can to reduce the acrylamide concentrations in food so it would be prudent to follow their cooking guidelines.

It is easy to be alarmed by these reports about such staple fixtures of our diets, but it is important to remember that the studies on humans are inconclusive and that the risk is not yet substantiated. The Food Standards Agency recommends that a balanced and moderate diet including your standard 5 a day will help reduce the risk of cancer. Let moderation be our watchword and maybe that piece of toast really should just go in the bin.

 

Here is a video from the Food Standards Agency with some basic information on Acrylamide and their ‘Go for Gold’ Campaign.

Keeping Food Pests out of your Food Business!

A few weeks ago, ASDA were fined £300,000 for food safety breaches, but specifically for the abysmal lack of pest control, after dead mice and flies were discovered in the aisles of one of their home delivery depots which distributes food to online shoppers across London and Essex.

All food businesses are susceptible to pest infestations and pest harbourage and any pest infestation is a very serious problem, which does not just affect the profitability of your business – but which has potentially serious financial, moral and legal ramifications. It is worth noting that food premises have been closed down by environmental health officers due to an infestation of, or failure to control, pests.

Therefore it is absolutely vital to ensure that your food business has adequate pest-proofing in place and that products are safeguarded from contamination and defilement from pests.

Simply put, a food pest is any animal, insect or bird that can contaminate food, both physically (from fur, droppings or feathers) and microbiologically. As well as damage to products, food pests such as cockroaches and rodents carry a number of harmful diseases, which can be transmitted in various ways. For example by direct contact, scratches, or ingesting food or drink contaminated by them. Moreover, a number of rats carry bacteria called Leptospirosis (which can develop into Weil’s disease) which if left untreated in humans can kill.

It is therefore imperative that food pests are kept out!

Remember, it is much easier and simpler to stop pests from entering in the first place, than to deal with an infestation once it’s taken hold. As with most problems, prevention in the first instance is better than the cure. It is therefore important to make sure that appropriate controls are put in place to avoid an infestation of food pests.

 

Here are some very basic control measures to observe:

  • Firstly, always ensure you have an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system in place. This involves monitoring, prevention and control. This would normally be done in conjunction with a competent person / professional pest control contractor.
  • Make sure all windows in food rooms and food areas are ‘fly screened’.
  • Always check deliveries for signs of pests or pest activity. Reject deliveries if you have any evidence of contamination or harbourage.
  • Always store delivered goods in pest-proof containers and always off the floor.
  • Make sure the premises are well maintained and designed in such a way as to prevent entry of food pests.
  • Ensure that no ‘daylight’ can be seen below or around external doors.

 

Here is a video from the Food Standards Agency aimed at small food businesses:

New regulations on Rare Burgers – here’s what you need to know

The trend in serving and eating undercooked or rare burgers has greatly increased in the past several years within the UK. Various outlets and restaurant chains offer rare or undercooked burgers as an option to their customers. From the 1st March 2017, new regulations came into force, stating that all businesses supplying minced meat products or other meat preparations, which are intended to be served less than thoroughly cooked, now need to acquire approval by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) or by their Local Authority to do so. The new regulations take effect following on from a consultation period by the FSA, and will apply to any business offering anything less than fully cooked burgers. Any food establishment wishing to serve less than thoroughly cooked burgers will now need to obtain verification from their butcher or meat supplier that they are approved. This requirement will be applicable in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Food service businesses should not see this requirement as yet more ‘regulation’ and ‘red tape’, but rather this should be viewed as a positive step, particularly as it will ultimately ensure a higher level of control and consumer protection – particularly from pathogens such as E. coli O157 and Salmonella. Every year there are around 900 recorded cases of E.coli poisoning.

The main reason why undercooking burgers has been traditionally frowned upon is because bacteria tends to be found on the surface of meat. When raw meat is minced, the bacteria prevalent on the surface is then mixed all the way through. This is why up until now the consistent advice from the FSA (with regards to cooking burgers) is to ensure they are thoroughly cooked to the accepted core temperature and time of 70°C for 2 minutes or 75°C for 30 seconds, as advised by the ACMSF (Advisory Committee on Microbiological Safety of Food). This still remains the safest and simplest option. However, the FSA have also acknowledged that “the risk from rare burgers served in catering establishments is not so unacceptable as to justify removing the adult consumer’s right to choose to eat it, provided a validated and verified food safety management is applied”.

What to do if you are serving rare or undercooked burgers

If you are a food service business choosing to sell, or exploring the possibility of serving less than thoroughly cooked burgers, you must ensure that you have a validated and verified Food Safety Management System (FSMS) in place, which includes the FSA control measures summarised below:

  • Your meat must be sourced from premises that are approved under EU law to supply minced meat intended to be eaten uncooked or lightly cooked
  • Your meat supplier needs to have sampling and testing systems in place that will identify pathogens including Salmonella and E. coli O157
  • Businesses must identify how the burgers would be prepared and cooked, i.e. how the minced meat would be cooked to reduce the possibility of 100,000 E. coli to a maximum of 10 E. coli after cooking. • Stringent temperature control to prevent the growth of bacteria along with safe and hygienic storage, preparation and cooking procedures, must be in place and followed.
  • Evidence that cooking times and temperatures have been monitored correctly and recorded accurately.
  • Provide clear and unambiguous consumer advice on menus, which lay out the additional risk from burgers which are not thoroughly cooked.
  • The FSA still maintain that children and other vulnerable people such as the elderly or pregnant women should only be served burgers that are thoroughly cooked.

Slower cooking methods

It is perfectly acceptable to cook burgers at lower temperatures. The general principle is that when you cook at lower temperatures you must extend the cooking time in order to reduce the risk of pathogens surviving. Here are some tested examples of temperatures and cooking times for low temperature cooking:

60°C for 93 minutes

65°C for 14 minutes

Bear in mind that a lot depends on the size and thickness of the burger, but based on current data, the above temperatures, if applied to their corresponding length of time, will reduce the numbers of vegetative pathogens to safe levels. It is worth remembering that some thermotolerant bacteria may grow at marginal cooking temperatures. For example, when slow cooking a product that may contain Clostridium Perfringens at temperatures of 52ºC or below, this introduces the risk of this organism multiplying to levels that would constitute a risk to the consumer.

 

Final notes

When monitoring temperatures, always ensure you use a calibrated and disinfected temperature probe. Always check that when taking the temperature the tip of the probe is in the very centre of the burger. Many times we observe chefs probing food where the tip of the probe is touching the tray, not the core of the product.

If you are a food business serving, or looking to serve rare burgers, and would like to talk to someone about the new regulations or would like some advice, please contact CaterSafe today.

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.