Food safety is a topic that encompasses a huge variety of considerations, from the correct way to use kitchen equipment to appropriately labelling different kinds of food products. Handling and storing food is one area where some of the biggest risks are present, which is why it’s important to be aware of the common hazards that may impact these processes.
Anyone who cooks for themselves and others at home should be aware of the risks associated with storing and handling food. But if you’re the owner of a business that serves or supplies food, or you work in a commercial kitchen, it is especially important to be aware of these hazards and how to prevent them, to avoid potential health and legal consequences.
In this article, we outline some of the most common hazards related to handling and storing food, as well as offering advice on how best to reduce or remove these risks.
Biological hazards come from microorganisms that may be present in a kitchen environment and contaminate the food that is being stored or prepared there. This can include bacteria, viruses, funguses and biological toxins.
These microorganisms may enter a kitchen by being carried in on people or packaging from other environments, or they may already be present in some kinds of raw or uncooked food. If ingested, many microorganisms can lead to illness or health complications like food poisoning that can affect either the people working in the kitchen or the people consuming the food. This isn’t only a problem for the individuals that are affected; repeated cases of food poisoning for example can lead to a business getting sued or shut down.
Chemical hazards are any chemical products in a kitchen environment that may contaminate the food being prepared or stored there. The most common example of this is chemicals that are present in cleaning products, which may contaminate food if left on a surface, on someone’s hands or if a product is sprayed close to where food has been left uncovered.
Whilst there aren't usually toxic amounts of dangerous chemicals in the products usually found in a kitchen, accidentally ingesting chemicals can still lead to health problems that can make the affected person feel quite unwell. In serious cases, the health impact can be quite severe, which is why chemical hazards are one of the main things to consider when identifying types of food hazards.
Physical hazards are foreign objects in a kitchen environment that have the potential to contaminate the food being handled and stored there. These may include small items that are left around the kitchen or could be objects belonging to people in the kitchen like jewellery.
The reason that physical hazards are considered such an important part of food health and safety to consider is that they present a choking risk or can lead to serious health problems if accidentally swallowed. Pests or pest waste is also considered a physical hazard, which may also carry harmful bacteria into the body if ingested.
Allergenic hazards in food pose a serious risk to those with allergies or intolerances. If an allergen contaminates a food product, or is even in the same environment in some extreme cases, it may cause an allergic reaction which can sometimes be fatal for the person affected.
Being aware of the 14 allergens and how to avoid allergenic contamination is vital if you work in a food preparation or storage environment, as you can cause serious harm if accidental contamination occurs. Businesses also face serious legal consequences if allergens that aren’t labelled or warned about are present in the food they serve or stock, which is why extra care should be taken to reduce or remove these hazards as much as possible.
Cross-contamination occurs when any of the above hazards contaminate a food product by being transferred from an ingredient, surface, piece of equipment, person or surface to another ingredient or food product. This is one of the biggest hazards to be mindful of in a food preparation or storage environment, as cross-contamination makes it very hard to identify where a hazard has come from, as well as causing problems trying to identify who or what might have been affected.
Time and temperature control is a hazard that can lead to some kinds of biological contamination. It involves how food products are stored, cooked or heated, and needs to be carefully controlled to reduce the risk of contaminated food.
Time control refers to how long certain products need to be cooked or heated to ensure they are safe to eat, as well as how long different kinds of food products can be stored or displayed in different environments before they go off and can no longer be safely eaten. Temperature control refers to the temperatures that food products must reach before they are safe to eat, as well as the different temperatures that items need to be stored or displayed at to avoid any harmful microorganisms growing and contaminating them.
Having poor personal hygiene is another hazard that leads to biological contamination, but is a topic that should be covered separately when assessing the types of food hazards because of its importance. Personal hygiene refers to how clean the people in a kitchen environment are, and particularly refers to their hand hygiene.
Having good hand hygiene means thoroughly washing your hands regularly, after touching any hazardous substances, and in between completing different tasks or preparing different products. This drastically reduces cross-contamination and keeps the whole kitchen environment cleaner.
In order to reduce or remove the likelihood of any of these hazards being present in a kitchen environment, here are some of the best ways to prevent common hazards related to handling and storing food.
A common way that cross-contamination occurs is when contaminants are left on surfaces and then come into contact with food products. By disinfecting and cleaning the surfaces in a kitchen at the start and end of every day, as well as in between tasks and whenever things get particularly messy, you reduce the likelihood of this kind of contamination and keep the whole area much cleaner.
Washing your hands regularly is one of the simplest and most effective ways to prevent biological and chemical contamination hazards in a kitchen. Anyone working in a kitchen should wash their hands thoroughly before and in between every task they complete and after touching any contaminant to reduce cross-contamination as much as possible, and all staff should be educated on the correct way to wash their hands.
Some of the most common causes of physical contamination occur when hair or jewellery gets into food products that come from the people handling the food. To reduce the risk of these physical food hazards, people working in a kitchen should remove all of their jewellery before starting any food preparation task and anyone with long hair should tie it up or wear a hairnet.
Chemical contamination often occurs because cleaning products containing harmful chemicals are kept in the same place as ingredients or food preparation equipment. To remove the likelihood of this risk occurring, cleaning products should be stored completely separately from any items or ingredients and always be put away after use.
Having waste and rubbish around a kitchen not only tends to attract pests, but also is a prime hazard for biological contamination. A schedule should be set up so that bins are emptied regularly, any waste should always be cleared up right away, and bins should also be kept away from where food is stored or prepared so that chances of cross-contamination are minimised.
Keeping equipment used in a kitchen clean is one of the best ways to reduce multiple common hazards when handling and storing food, particularly cases of cross-contamination. Any equipment used to prepare food should be properly cleaned after use, and if things like raw meat are handled in the kitchen then special equipment should be chosen that isn’t used for any other ingredient.
As well as keeping equipment clean, it should also be stored in an organised fashion to further reduce cases of cross-contamination.
Pests present a major health and safety hazard, so immediate action should be taken at the first indication that pests or an infestation may be present in a kitchen. Keeping the environment clean and ensuring that ingredients are stored securely will hopefully reduce the likelihood of any pests appearing in the first place, but you should immediately address the cause and implement more preventative measures to ensure that the problem doesn’t get out of hand.
Allergenic hazards in food are a major risk in kitchens, so taking extra care to keep ingredients separate and equipment clean is vital to control this hazard. Staff working with allergies should also be given appropriate allergen awareness training so that they are aware of the recommended measures that have been put in place and also know which relevant legislation they should comply with.
Temperature control has a major impact on the safety of food products, and appropriate guidelines and regulations should be followed to ensure that this hazard is controlled. Check the storage guidance for all the products kept in a kitchen so that ingredients are all kept at the core temperature, and ensure that any food being reheated has its temperature measured before being served to check that it is safe to consume.
Finally, ingredients in a kitchen should be stored separately to prevent cases of cross-contamination. You should follow the guidelines of where food needs to be stored in a fridge or freezer to keep products fresh for as long as possible, and also make sure that everything is kept sealed to stop pest infestations.
Controlling safety hazards when handling food is incredibly important because it protects the people who come into contact with the food and reduces the likelihood that they will become unwell from any kind of contamination. From the perspective of food and catering businesses, controlling food safety hazards ensures that you comply with health and safety legislation which protects your customers, your reputation and your business.
Poor waste management refers to ineffective or incomplete removal of food waste or other waste from a kitchen environment, which can lead to food safety hazards. The most common hazard relating to this is biological contamination, which can lead to harmful microorganisms being present when food is handled and prepared and potentially contaminating it.
The four main categories of contamination hazards are biological, chemical, physical and allergenic. Some other common hazards may be present when you’re storing and handling food, but the majority of hazards can be grouped into these four categories.
There are plenty of food safety hazards in a kitchen environment that are easy to control if you take simple steps to keep the space clean and organised. Complying with health and safety regulations is vital if you work in or own a food or catering business, so awareness of some of the most common types of food hazards and how to prevent them can be incredibly useful.
If you’re interested in finding out more about food safety hazards and how to prevent them, this topic and many more are covered in our online ‘Level 1 Food Safety and Hygiene’ and ‘Level 2 Food Safety & Hygiene’ courses.