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Controlling E.coli O157

If you’re old enough to remember any major news events of 1996, you would be hard pressed not to recall the tragedy that unfolded in a small town in Scotland.   A butcher’s shop in Wishaw, Lanarkshire was the location from which the world’s worst recorded outbreak of E. coli food poisoning originated.  An outbreak in which twenty one people sadly died and an estimated 500 others were seriously ill and directly affected.

Thankfully these sorts of outbreaks are rare but they do occur, as proven by this event back in 1996 and, more recently, the outbreak in the USA where nearly 100 people in over 20 different states were affected by an outbreak of E. coli poisoning linked to romaine lettuce.  10 of those affected had kidney failure and 46 were hospitalised.

A potentially lethal pathogen, E. coli (Escherichia coli) is bacteria which lives in the intestines of humans and animals.  There are different strains of E. coli, most of which are harmless, but one particular strain produces a toxin called Shiga toxin.  This strain is called E.coli O157: H7.  The toxins produced can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, fever and bloody diarrhoea.  More seriously, it can destroy red blood cells causing kidney failure and, in worst cases, even death.  Not everybody will contract kidney failure or face a terminal outcome and will recover within 6-8 days, however, the risk is very real and should be taken extremely seriously.

The bacteria is usually found in contaminated food and water.  Food stuffs include unpasteurised milk/milk products (such as soft cheese etc.), undercooked minced beef, some raw fruit and vegetables or anything that might have had contact with faecal matter, possibly in or near a farm environment.  Crops most typically affected are items such as lettuce, spinach and sprouts.  It can also be contracted through contaminated water (drinking it or swimming in it) and possibly from a farmyard environment if you come into direct contact with animals.

With such serious implications, it is imperative that your business takes precautions to avoid contamination of any of your products:

 

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing any food, – but especially before handling high-risk, ready-to-eat food
  • If you have been visiting a farm and had contact with animals (something you may well do on a frequent basis as a food producer or purchaser) make sure you wash your hands thoroughly before leaving and change/wash the clothes you were wearing before getting anywhere near any food preparation area
  • Ensure any minced beef product (including burgers) has been cooked to an internal temperature of at least 75˚C
  • Make sure any food product such as lettuce or spinach is washed thoroughly in clean water, especially if being served raw
  • Avoid cross contamination. Make sure you are meticulous about washing your hands and any implements you have used to prepare food before using them on a different food item
  • Always use sanitisers which meet the BS EN standards, and always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. (A database of compliant sanitisers and disinfectants can be found at: www.disinfectant-info.co.uk  here )
  • Where possible, keep food chilled below 5˚C as this slows bacteria growth. Raw minced beef products should ideally be kept below 3˚C
  • If anybody within your food business is infected with E.coli it is vital that they stay away from company premises and other work colleagues until they are completely clear of the infection as it can also be transferred by person to person contact. The general rule is 48 hours after symptoms have ceased, however with E.coli O157 it may be necessary to get medical clearance first.

The little butcher’s shop in Wishaw was the subject of numerous newspaper articles for many years following 1996.  They say there is no such thing as bad publicity but, when it comes to food establishments, it can be the kiss of death.  With the right precautions in place, your business should be able to stay free of E.coli and free of bad publicity.

 

To discuss your food safety requirements, please contact us today.

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Salmonella in Eggs?

Salmonella

It’s been nearly 30 years since Edwina Currie, MP and Junior Health Minister made a bold claim that caused a massive slump in the sale of eggs and incurred the wrath of poultry farmers up and down the land. In 1988, ‘Eggwina’, as she has been known, stated that most of the egg production in the UK was infected with salmonella. She was forced to resign after a huge backlash but her assertions were subsequently found to have some truth in them. Since then, poultry farmers have made great strides in hygiene and a salmonella vaccine for hens which was first rolled out in 1998 has all but eradicated salmonella in eggs in the UK and, just this month, it was reported that British eggs with the red ‘lion stamp’ are now safe to be eaten runny or soft boiled. There is a greater risk in imported eggs. But what is salmonella and is it just found in eggs?

Salmonella is bacteria first discovered in pigs in the late 19th century and it can cause sickness in humans; symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches, fever and stomach cramps. It is found in the intestines of animals, birds and people. If the faeces of an infected animal or bird makes its way onto food during the production process, it can result in the food borne illness, salmonella poisoning, for the consumer. It is mostly found in raw meat products, poultry and poultry products. Occasionally, it can be found in seafood and fruit and vegetables but this would only be because the water it is fished from or washed in is contaminated, so this is very unlikely.

It is not just fresh products that can be affected and, even with the strictest procedures in place on production lines and the best will in the world, there are still some that slip through the net. It was only in June this year that Mars recalled some of its Galaxy bars, Minstrels and Maltesers from the shelves in the UK and Ireland over salmonella contamination fears. The Mars company emphasised that it was only a precautionary measure and it should be stressed that this is a highly unusual and rare case.

Salmonella poisoning makes no exceptions and anybody can catch it, although it is rarely life threatening. It is highly infectious and can be passed from person to person and can last for over a week in particularly bad cases. If you are unfortunate enough to contract salmonella poisoning you should stay away from work and from others for two full days after the last showing of any symptom. The best option is, of course, to avoid getting it altogether and there are a few basic, common sense measures you can take:

• Always wash your hands before and after preparing raw meat and poultry
• Always cook meat thoroughly so that it is piping hot throughout (if you have a probe thermometer, check the meat is cooked to at least 75◦C at its thickest point)
• Always store cooked and raw foods separately and ensure there is no risk of seepage onto other food items
• Always wash your hands thoroughly after preparing raw meat and poultry and going to the toilet, – especially public toilets

These are simple and easy measures to put in place but they could make all the difference. For your health’s sake, and the health of others around you, it’s worth the extra effort.

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Why is Cooked Rice considered High Risk?

In response to various questions we have had over the years on the subject, we thought it would be worthwhile to dedicate this post to explain in very simple terms, why it is that cooked rice is a high risk product.

For most of us, eating a leftover takeaway for breakfast is not generally acceptable but for some others, it’s a positive treat.  A piece of pizza or the scraps of rice and bhuna from a left-over Indian meal are, to some, a delicious breakfast which will set them up for the day.  When it comes to rice however, it’s probably fair to say that most people tend to over order on their takeaways or overestimate when cooking and end up with huge volumes of the stuff (we never learn!), but is there a danger lurking in this staple of so many people’s diets?

Rice in its raw form often contains bacterial spores of a pathogen called Bacillus Cereus.  The spores are harmless all the while the rice is uncooked but, it is once the cooking process has been completed that the risk arises as the spores are activated by warmth.  Bacillus Cereus spores will often survive the cooking process. This is not an issue, so long as the rice is either consumed when cooked, hot-held above 63ºC, or cooled rapidly and chilled subsequent to cooking. The problem arises when the rice is left out post cooking and enters the temperature rage commonly referred to as the ‘danger zone’ (5ºC – 63ºC, but particularly 20ºC – 50ºC). Once the temperature is favourable, the spores will then begin to germinate, and will release exotoxins in the rice. It is these toxins which cause food poisoning.  The symptoms of Bacillus Cereus food poisoning are often vomiting and diarrhoea and in most cases generally last for about 24 hours; unpleasant and unwanted. It is also worth mentioning however, that there is a second type of Bacillus Cereus which produces an enterotoxin within the intestine. The incubation period for this is often slightly longer than the first type (12 – 24 hours), with the symptoms primarily being abdominal pain, diarrhoea and fever.

Control measures

Freshly and thoroughly cooked, steaming rice should be safe.  The problem comes when rice is left to cool slowly and the bacteria go into overdrive, specifically between the temperatures of 28ºC and 35ºC.  The longer the rice remains left out of temperature control once cooked and is not adequately cooled and refrigerated, the greater the risk.  Avoid rice that has been left out for too long, it really isn’t worth chancing it!

If you are not intending to eat the rice as part of a hot meal but want to eat it cold, we would strongly recommend cooling it quickly and placing it in the fridge within one hour, keeping it at a temperature of 4ºC or lower.  This should make the rice safe to eat when cold; after all, a nice rice salad is an essential part of any good buffet.

If you’ve overestimated on the amount of rice you’ve cooked or purchased and don’t like to see things go to waste but plan on having it the next day as part of another hot meal, the same cooling process should be followed.  Cool it and place it in the fridge within one hour.  When it comes to reheating, make sure you heat it thoroughly (> 75 ºC), so that the rice is steaming, piping hot throughout.  It is recommended that you reheat rice once only and within 24 hours.  If you still have some left over it is best to discard it.

At this point it is important to note that cooked rice, purchased as part of a takeaway meal, would probably have already been reheated. The initial cooking would normally take place at the ‘mise-en-place’ stage in the restaurant’s preparation.

Following these simple guidelines should help you to avoid any food poisoning incidents.  Some rice (not intended for immediate consumption) can be refreshed and cooled instantly under cold running water. However in the absence of a blast chiller and especially for rice dishes with other ingredients and flavours incorporated (such as the base of a risotto or rice salad) a helpful tip when cooling is to decant the rice into a number of separate, shallow  containers; thus spreading out the surface area, enabling  it to cool down faster so that it should be cool enough to place it in the fridge within the hour.

Perhaps we associate food poisoning mostly with undercooked or poorly reheated meat or poultry, but this simple food grain poses just as high a risk and we need to be just as careful.  With that in mind, it is worth thinking twice about that pile of leftover rice on the side, inviting though it seems, and discard it completely.  If you’ve got a food bin, you won’t have to worry about it going to waste as it’ll be taken away for recycling, leaving you to rest in the knowledge that it will be utilised safely and productively and nobody will suffer any ill effects: surely the preferable outcome!

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What is Clostridium Botulinum?

Clostridium Botulinum

For those of us born before the technological age, our childhoods would probably have involved playing outside for much of the time, making our own entertainment.  For many, playing in the mud and dirt was a great pastime.  You might be one of those that made mud pies and got absolutely filthy, to the despair of your parents.  Some children actually proceeded to tuck into said mud pies but have turned out just fine.  Little did we know, however, that something pretty sinister was lurking in the very same soil from which we were making our mud pies.

Sources, Causes and Symptoms

Clostridium botulinum is bacteria which is present in untreated water, soil and dust all over the world and can also be found on a number of food items, for example, anything which has been grown in soil may have had contact with the bacteria.  The bacteria in its natural state is not harmful but, as an ‘obligate anaerobe’, if it is deprived of oxygen, its spores start to produce toxins which can, in very rare cases, be fatal.  It is no exaggeration to say that it is probably the most dangerous of food borne illnesses that can be contracted.  The toxins attack the nervous system, disabling the neurotransmitters which carry instructions from the brain to our muscles, thus causing paralysis.  Symptoms include nausea, dizziness, vomiting, double vision, drooping eyelids and paralysis amongst others.  It can be treated with antitoxins which prevent the toxins from travelling round the body so an immediate visit to the doctor or hospital is absolutely imperative.

Foodborne botulism is generally contracted from canned foods which have not been processed correctly at source.  In food in canned form, the bacteria are deprived of oxygen and toxins develop so that, when consumed, the illness strikes.  In the UK, hygiene regulations are very strict so food being processed incorrectly is a real rarity.  Canned food is subject to intense heating and sterilisation processes which should eradicate any risk.

Clostridium Botulinum in Children

Infant botulism is the most frequent form of the illness and occurs mostly in babies under the age of 6 months, although it tends to occur through botulinum spores releasing the toxins once ingested, rather than pre-developed toxins in foods.  At this age, their bodies have not yet developed to deal with botulinum in bacteria form, as adults’ immune systems have.  For adults, it is the pre-developed toxins that pose the risk.

Controls

It should be noted that cases of botulism are very scarce but there are measures you can take to ensure avoiding contact with these potentially deadly toxins.  Never eat food from a can which is bulging or leaking, or which shoots out unnaturally when being opened, as it could be contaminated.  Heat food which comes from cans properly.  The World Health Organisation states that, ‘the toxin produced by bacteria growing out of the spores under anaerobic conditions is destroyed by boiling (for example, at internal temperature greater than 85 °C for 5 minutes or longer)’.  Never give honey to children under 1 year old as this is a common cause of infant botulism.  If you are going to can food at home, make sure you find out how to do it properly so that you can follow the strictest hygiene procedures.  Always put leftover and cooked food in the refrigerator, as low temperatures help to prevent the formation of toxins.  Decant any leftovers from cans into other containers and refrigerate.  Simple measures which are easy to follow and which could make all the difference.

Botox

On a final note, it’s not all bad news.  The botulinum bacteria is the main ingredient used in botox, where the skin is effectively ‘paralysed’ to reduce the appearance of wrinkles so, for those who seek the elixir of youth, the botulinum bacteria is one of the finds of the modern age!

 

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Protecting Your Customers from Campylobacter

Campylobacter in chicken

Protecting Your Customers from Campylobacter

Food poisoning is a major cause of concern in the UK.  When bacteria, viruses or parasites are present in food, they cause diarrhoea, vomiting and other serious illnesses that can sometimes turn out to be fatal.  Currently the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK is that of Campylobacter; and is therefore a very real cause for concern. It’s currently estimated that Campylobacter causes around 100 fatalities each year and is believed to cost the UK economy a whopping £900 Million! The Food Standards Agency (FSA) have estimated that around 28,000 people in the UK fell ill to Campylobacter in 2014.

The Campylobacter bacteria is particularly prevalent in raw meat, especially in raw poultry; not surprisingly there have been a number of cases in which poultry farms have been identified as being the source of a food poisoning outbreak. Research shows that almost 65% of chicken sold in UK’s butcheries and supermarkets are contaminated with Campylobacter. This has been such a huge problem that the Food Standards Agency were driven to order new tests to be conducted on UK farms.

Contamination usually occurs when chicken are reared in cramped conditions. Some poultry farmers will do this in order to maximize production, but this intense farming method actually enhances the spread of bacteria from flock to flock. A single infected bird can infect the entire flock, so farmers need to be very diligent and act immediately it is identified.

Whilst the bacteria rarely cause symptoms in animals, it can prove seriously detrimental to human health once consumed; therefore animal health is absolutely foundational to food safety in humans.

There are some measures that can be taken to make chicken less vulnerable to Campylobacter. However, most farmers are unable to conduct a thorough enough cleaning programme because of the associated costs which would inevitably have to be passed on to an increasingly price sensitive consumer, who has become used to cheap chicken.

Who is at risk of Campylobacter? Put simply; all of your customers are! But especially those whose immune systems are weaker, or impaired. These include young children, pregnant women, the elderly, those who are convalescing after an illness.

In the Kitchen: Practical ways to protect your customers from Campylobacter.

One really important control measure is to be sure only to purchase poultry from reputable and approved suppliers. Once Poultry has been delivered, ensure that it is stored correctly; covered and placed in a deep container in the bottom of the refrigerator. By doing this, you will significantly reduce the risk of blood or juices dripping onto high-risk, ready-to-eat foods. However, it is best practice to have a separate fridge solely for the storage of raw meat and poultry. The same levels of segregation apply to frozen poultry.

Prior to cooking, it’s vital that poultry is not washed – as this can spread the bacteria around the kitchen by splashing! When dealing with frozen poultry, always plan ahead, and ensure that it is fully defrosted before cooking. When defrosting poultry, or any raw meat for that matter, it’s always best to thaw in the refrigerator 24 hours before it’s required.

During preparation, it’s essential that you thoroughly clean and disinfect all work surfaces, chopping boards and utensils ‘as you go’. Cleaning is absolutely fundamental to food safety, as is frequent and effective hand washing, but especially after handling raw poultry.

Most of the bacteria present in raw foods, can be eliminated by thorough and effective cooking, the same applies to Campylobacter. Making sure that chicken and other poultry is properly cooked before consumption will help to eliminate Campylobacter in raw meat.