Top tips for summer food safety
For professional food handlers, a hot summer can be a period of great opportunity. Sunny weather usually gets people in the mood for outdoor dining, thanks to the barbecue season kicking off and open-air buffets, food carts and pop-up stalls all offering seasonal treats.
As such, a long summer can provide mutual benefits for chefs and consumers alike - but it's also worth bearing in mind that outdoor cooking poses its own specific set of challenges, and it's vital for food handlers to make sure they're operating with safety and hygiene as foremost priorities at all times.
This can be tricky to get right, but by keeping a few simple principles in mind, it becomes much easier to avoid any potential mistakes and provide an outdoor dining experience that will be memorable in all the best ways.
Stay aware of the risks
Before you can properly tackle the issue of food safety and hygiene during the summer, it's important to make sure you're aware of the potential risks - and that the same goes for your staff.
After all, outdoor dining - when handled badly - can create ideal conditions for outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, some of which can be extremely serious. Campylobacter, for example, is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK, and can easily be spread by failing to properly handle poultry, meat, dairy products, unpasteurised milk and shellfish, while salmonella is another common bug found in raw meat, undercooked poultry and eggs, among other sources.
These common pathogens - as well as other known summer food bugs like listeria and E. coli - can result in severe health problems, and tend to circulate more widely during the summer months. Educating a workforce on these issues is a crucial first step in keeping any risks to a minimum.
Keep the food properly chilled
Being outside is always going to make exposure to bacteria and germs more likely, but it's the heat of summer that really exacerbates the infection risk - which is why keeping food properly chilled is such a key priority.
Foods that require cold storage should be kept at the right temperature - usually below five degrees C - until just before they need to be prepared, with perishable items kept well out of the sun until serving time. In cases where food needs to be defrosted, this should never be done at room temperature; ideally, food should be defrosted fully in the fridge - or using a microwave on the defrost setting - directly before cooking.
Cook thoroughly before serving
Getting the cooking process right is obviously important when producing a tasty summer treat with real appeal, but it should also go without saying that heating food at the right temperature - and for the correct length of time - plays a vital role in killing off harmful bacteria.
Remember, different types of meat need to be heated for different lengths of time to make sure they're cooked thoroughly. Digital food thermometers can make it easier to check this, but there are easier ways to tell at a glance - for example, the meat should be steaming hot throughout, with clear juices and no pink meat visible at the thickest part.
Once cooked, keep the food at a warm temperature until it's ready to serve, then make sure it's eaten promptly after that, as it runs the risk of spoiling if exposed to the sun for too long.
Keep it clean
Proper cleaning is essential to good food hygiene at any time of year, but it's never a bad idea to remind yourself of the basics, especially given the greater contamination risks that exist outdoors.
Washing hands before and after handling food will be second nature to any professional, as will making sure that dishes and utensils are kept clean. This can be more challenging when cooking outside, so it's useful to keep wet wipes and sanitisers around in case it's not always possible to access a sink.
It's also worth reminding food handlers to avoid washing raw meat, as this has no benefit in terms of hygiene, and in fact causes germs to be spread across hands, clothes, utensils and surfaces. Focus attention instead on making sure the meat is properly cooked, as this will kill any bacteria present.
Take care to avoid cross-contamination
Finally, it's important to be aware of dangers caused by cross-contamination when raw ingredients come into contact with food that's ready to eat, whether this is directly or via shared surfaces and utensils.
When cooking outdoors with limited space, this can be an easy mistake to make, so do all you can to avoid contamination by storing raw meat separately from prepared foods, using different utensils, plates and chopping boards for raw and cooked food, and washing hands after handling raw meat before touching anything that's ready to be served.
Making sure to use a clean plate when taking cooked meat off the barbeque is also advisable, as this can further minimise the cross-contamination danger, and ensure that guests and customers can enjoy all of the flavour of outdoor cooking with none of the risk.