Every year, approximately 1 in 8 Canadians become ill with a food-borne illness. Out of those cases, over 11,500 are hospitalized and over 230 die. Food safety is extremely important in order to reduce food-borne illness incidents in Canada. Three key factors of food safety are particularly important to understand and be trained on: time and temperature control, proper storage of food and the prevention of food contamination. Understanding these factors and the role they play in food safety is especially important as food businesses operate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Time and temperature control
Harmful pathogens need a certain time and temperature to be able to grow and cause food-borne illnesses in people. Pathogens thrive in the Temperature Danger Zone which is temperatures between 4°C and 60°C (40°F to 140°F). It is essential that food businesses ensure that food — particularly high-risk foods — stays out of the Temperature Danger Zone in order to prevent the growth of harmful pathogens which can make customers sick. High-risk food must be thrown out after it’s spent 2 hours in the Temperature Danger Zone.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, some food businesses switched their business model to include take-out and delivery after being required to close their doors to the public. Many of these businesses had never conducted that type of service before the pandemic and there was a steep learning curve. Food businesses need to be educated in time and temperature control for these types of services as they present their own set of unique issues.
For example, delivery requires that food be transported to the customer in a delivery container. Food businesses must ensure that delivery bags are able to keep hot food hot and cold food cold so that food out for delivery does not sit in the Temperature Danger Zone while being transported.
For take-out meals, time and temperature control issues involve the role of the customer. The risk in this situation comes from customers not eating their take-out meal right away, but rather consuming it a significant time later. This means that the food can potentially be left sitting in the Temperature Danger Zone for some time before being consumed, effectively allowing for the potential growth of harmful pathogens. Food businesses are encouraged to provide a warning to customers either verbally or in writing on a small card that is placed in the take-out bag. Warning customers about the dangers of not consuming their take-out meal right away can help to reduce the incidents of food-borne illness.
2. Food storage
The management of food is essential to keeping food safe for consumption. Food businesses must ensure that food is managed safely and properly during every stage including receiving, storing, preparing, cooking and serving. In particular, food that is not stored properly and safely can become contaminated even before it is brought out to be prepared by kitchen staff.
When food is received, food businesses must ensure that the food is being delivered at the correct temperature. For example, refrigerated foods must be delivered at 4°C or less. Refrigerated food that is delivered at a temperature higher than 4°C must be rejected.
Food businesses must then ensure that the food is stored properly, safely and in the proper order. Storing food in the proper order ensures that high-risk foods are not kept in the Temperature Danger Zone for too long. Their order is:
- High-risk foods (meat, seafood, poultry, dairy, etc.)
- Frozen foods
- Other refrigerated foods
- Dried goods
How long food is stored depends on the type of food. It is essential that food businesses know the recommended food storage times in order to ensure that only food that is safe for consumption is kept on the premises. This is key to preparing delicious food that is safe for consumption by customers.
Learn more about recommended food storage times with the CIFS Recommended Food Storage Times Fact Sheet.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused many food businesses to shut their doors temporarily as mandated by the government. As a result, many food businesses had to deal with significant food waste and food spoilage as not all food businesses were able to continue operating with take-out or delivery. In these situations, operations were halted completely and a lot of food became spoiled during the closure. While food spoilage can be seen as a nuisance and costly, it is also a food safety hazard. If spoiled food is not identified and dealt with properly, it can find its way into a cooked meal and make a customer extremely ill.
Food businesses must be proactive when it comes to maintaining their food inventory, especially during the pandemic. Even though many food businesses have reopened to the public at the moment, outbreaks are still occurring and food businesses can be required to close their doors again at any time. Having a plan for the food during a closure is essential to keeping unsafe food out of the premises and preventing food-borne illness.
3. Contamination prevention
Cross-contamination refers to the transfer of contaminants from a surface, object or person to food. A common cause of cross-contamination includes unsafe food handling practices by Food Handlers that allow dangerous bacteria, viruses and parasites to contaminate food. When these pathogens are consumed, they can cause food-borne illness and make customers very ill.
Food Handlers can cross-contaminate food by improperly handling high-risk foods. For example, cross-contamination can occur if a Food Handler uses a cutting board to prepare raw meat and then uses the same cutting board to prepare a salad. Pathogens from the raw meat can be transferred to the fresh salad ingredients by the cutting board. This is just one example of how cross-contamination can easily occur in a food business and potentially make a customer sick.
The best way to prevent food contamination from happening in a food business is through food safety training and education. Ensuring that all Food Handlers within the business are up-to-date on their food safety training is key.
Chemical contamination of food occurs when chemicals get into food. This is a food safety concern as the consumption of chemically contaminated food can make someone very ill. This has always been a food safety threat, but it is even more concerning in the COVID-19 pandemic. Cleaning and sanitizing requirements for businesses have been increased which is leading to more chemical use throughout the premises. Equipment and food preparation surfaces are being cleaned and sanitized more regularly and if not done properly, can contaminate food. Food businesses must ensure that proper cleaning and sanitizing protocols are followed at all times. Food safety training ensures that all staff are aware of how to conduct cleaning and sanitizing in a proper and safe manner.
Many food businesses are also providing hand sanitizer to staff and customers in order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, hand sanitizer can cause chemical contamination of food if it is not allowed to dry properly on hands. For this reason, it is recommended that hand sanitizer only be used when proper hand washing cannot be conducted. Food businesses must ensure that all staff are trained on the proper use of hand sanitizer.
Learn more about chemical contamination of food and how to prevent it in a food business.
Food safety for Canadian food businesses
Food safety inspections
Food Inspectors are responsible for ensuring that food businesses are adhering to legislation. It is important for food businesses to be aware that a Food Inspector can enter the food business at any time for an inspection. Food Inspectors can issue infringement notices on many different issues, including but not limited to:
- failure to store, process, display and transport food properly
- lack of cleanliness and sanitization of the premises and equipment
- failure to keep the required records on the premises.
Food businesses must ensure they are conducting operations lawfully and meeting all requirements and standards. This is especially important these days with new requirements for operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Food Safety Plan
Most Canadian food businesses are required to create and implement a Food Safety Plan. The Food Safety Plan is a legal requirement that helps to control hazards within the business and to prevent health risks such as food-borne illnesses. Check out the CIFS Guide to Building a Food Safety Plan for more information.
Food safety training
Food safety training is the best defence against food safety incidents. In Canada, most food businesses are required to have multiple staff members who have their Food Handler Certification. Food Handler certification requirements are set and enforced at a provincial and municipal level and food businesses need to ensure they understand the specific food safety laws that apply based on province or territory.
Learn more about the nationally recognized CIFS Food Handler Certification Course and how food safety training is essential for a safe and lawful food business.