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Food Safety Guide for Caterers

Meeting food hygiene regulations, food hygiene legislation, staff training and food hazards

Food Safety Guides » Food Safety Guide for Caterers

Meeting Food Hygiene Regulation for Caterers

The term caterer can sometimes include food businesses, such as restaurants, cafes and takeaways. These will be covered in separate guides. This article will focus on catering businesses that provide food at social events or gatherings, such as weddings, funerals, corporate events, celebrations, private dinner parties etc.

There are two types of catering business, on-site and off-site. On-site catering is where food is prepared, cooked and served at an event location. Off-site catering is where food is prepared somewhere else and taken to the event location for further preparation, cooking and serving.

When providing food, catering businesses must comply with good food hygiene and safety practices. If they do not, it increases the risk of contamination and can make food unsafe. Contaminated food can make customers ill, cause injuries and may even be life-threatening in some cases. According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), approximately 2.4 million cases of foodborne illness occur every year in the UK, which is up from the 2009 estimate of around one million.

Poor hygiene and unsafe practices, such as not cooking or chilling high-risk food sufficiently and cross-contamination, can cause food poisoning. Allergen products coming into contact with allergen-free ones can result in severe allergic reactions in some people. Physical contaminants can injure the mouth and may even result in choking. Unsafe food is an even greater risk for those who are vulnerable, such as young children, the elderly, pregnant women, allergy sufferers and people with weakened immune systems.

There are many different types of catering businesses that offer various foods for numerous events. Some may offer buffets, canapés, afternoon tea and BBQs. Others may provide banquets, breakfasts, dinner and desserts and specialise in specific types of cuisines, such as Indian, Italian and Chinese. Some caterers may have many employees and work from their own or an on-site temporary premises. Others may work for themselves and work from home. One of the things that all types of caterers have in common is the need to uphold food hygiene and safety. How each business achieves this will depend on its nature and risks.

The overall aim of any business is to be profitable. All catering businesses will be inspected as part of the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS). If a caterer has poor food safety and hygiene standards, its food hygiene rating score is likely to be lower. According to an NFU Mutual Food Hygiene Report, 69% of people check the food hygiene ratings of the establishments they use, and customers would turn away from a 3-star rated business, but not one that was 5-star rated. A poor hygiene rating can mean a loss of customers and, therefore, a reduction in takings.

This guide will provide caterers with general advice on achieving good food safety and hygiene standards. It will also highlight why food safety and hygiene is essential when running a catering business.

Food hygiene legislation for caterers

As food operators, all catering businesses will need to comply with food safety and hygiene legislation.

The main laws are:

 

Further information on the key regulations is on the Food Standards Agency webpage.

If caterers are preparing, cooking, storing, handling, distributing, supplying or selling food, they will need to register with their local authority. They will also need a licence to sell alcohol and relevant insurances, e.g. public liability and employer’s liability. The FSA has guidance for those wanting to start a catering food business from home.

There may be other applicable laws, depending on the type of catering business. It is the responsibility of business owners to ensure they are aware of, and comply with, all relevant food safety laws. Ignorance of legislation is not a defence.

Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) are responsible for enforcing food safety and hygiene. They have certain powers under the FSA 1990 and various food hygiene regulations. If caterers do not comply with the law, EHOs can give a poor food hygiene rating score or issue enforcement notices. For more serious offences and non-compliance of notices, officers may decide to prosecute, which may mean fines, imprisonment and even closure of the business. If customers are made ill by unsafe food, they may also claim compensation, which can be very costly.

Catering prosecution cases

  • A wedding caterer was prosecuted and fined £250,106 after the bridegroom and over 50 guests suffered from salmonella food poisoning after eating undercooked food served at a wedding reception in Staffordshire (Lichfield District Council).
  • A catering company in Wales was prosecuted and fined £2,550 after five people suffered from food poisoning after eating mackerel stored over 8°C (Food Safety News).
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Staff training on food hygiene for caterers

Legally, all caterers must ensure that any staff (or themselves if they work alone) who prepare, handle or sell food are supervised, instructed and trained in food hygiene matters. It does not mean that staff have to have a food hygiene certificate. However, having evidence of this type of training is the best way to demonstrate to EHOs and customers that the business is committed to food safety. It also provides evidence for due diligence purposes in the event of an investigation or legal action.

Staff should receive training in line with their responsibilities, the area where they work and their tasks.

There are different levels of food hygiene training, e.g.:

  • Level 1 – Introduction to food hygiene, typically for those handling low-risk food, e.g. wrapped foods. This course may be beneficial for waiting-on and front of house staff with limited food contact.
  • Level 2 – Basic food hygiene certificate for staff preparing, cooking and handling food, e.g. kitchen staff and chefs.
  • Level 3 – Intermediate food hygiene certificate for those with more responsibilities, e.g. catering business owners, supervisors, managers and those involved in food safety management systems and HACCP.

 

Refresher training is also a requirement. The frequency will depend on the nature of the business, its risks, the food handled, and the competence of workers.

Food Hazards

Food hazards in catering

Food hazards are contaminants that can enter food and potentially cause harm to consumers. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) defines a food hazard as “something that could make food unsafe or unfit to eat”.

There are four different types of food hazards: biological, chemical, physical and allergenic.

Biological

Biological hazards happen when microorganisms contaminate food and drink. In a catering business, contamination may occur due to inadequate and improper storage, chilling, defrosting, cooking and reheating of food. Poor practices provide optimal conditions for harmful pathogens to grow. It can also occur from cross-contamination, e.g. raw foods coming into contact with cooked and ready-to-eat foods, and poor personal hygiene.

The risk will depend on the type of catering business, including the type of food served. One that only serves drinks and pre-packed food will be a lower risk than another cooking, hot holding and serving food.

Examples of biological hazards include:

  • Bacteria, e.g. Salmonella.
  • Fungi, e.g. yeasts and moulds.
  • Viruses, e.g. norovirus.

 

These microorganisms can cause foodborne illnesses, including food poisoning and intoxication.

It is unlikely customers will catch the COVID-19 virus from food (Food Standards Agency). However, caterers must follow current Government Guidance to reduce the risk to customers and staff.

Chemical

Chemical hazards occur when naturally occurring or human-made substances contaminate food. In a catering business, chemical hazards may occur due to cross-contamination, i.e. storing or spraying cleaning products near food and preparing food on surfaces where chemicals have been.

Examples of chemical hazards include:

  • Toxins produced by animals, plants and microorganisms, e.g. mycotoxins (produced by fungi).
  • Unintentionally added chemicals, e.g. cleaning chemicals.
  • Intentionally added chemicals to food but could be hazardous if used in excess quantities, e.g. flavourings and colourings.

 

Eating food contaminated with chemicals can result in immediate harm to the consumer. It can also cause long-term health effects if exposed to the hazard over time.

Physical

Physical hazards are foreign materials, objects and extraneous matter that can enter food during preparation and handling but may also be in raw ingredients. In catering businesses, these may occur due to poor personal hygiene but can also come from packaging, poorly maintained premises and equipment and pests.

Examples of physical hazards include:

  • Natural hazards – Occur naturally in food, e.g. fruit pips and stones, bones in meat and fish and shells from nuts.
  • Unnatural hazards – Should not be present in food, e.g. stones, human hair, fingernails (including false fingernails), plastic, glass, metal and wood.

 

These types of hazards can cause injuries to the mouth, teeth and gums. In some cases, physical contaminants can even result in choking, especially in the very young and the elderly. Some can be generally unpleasant to find in food, i.e. a hair or plaster.

Allergenic

Allergens are proteins that occur naturally in some foods but can contaminate other foods by cross-contact. In a catering business, allergenic hazards may result from using and storing allergen products where non-allergen products are.

There are 14 recognised allergens, which include:

  • Eggs.
  • Fish.
  • Milk.
  • Peanuts (groundnuts).
  • Celery (all of the plant, including the root celeriac).
  • Mustard (liquid, powder and seeds).
  • Tree nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts etc.).
  • Sesame (seeds).
  • Lupin (flower and seeds).
  • Soybeans.
  • Cereals (gluten) (oats, rye and barley).
  • Molluscs (oysters, snails and mussels).
  • Sulphur dioxide and sulphites.
  • Crustaceans (crab, prawns and lobster).

 

These types of hazards can cause allergic reactions in food allergy sufferers. In some cases, there is a risk of anaphylaxis in those with severe allergies.

Catering prosecution cases are usually due to food poisoning, as previously seen. Therefore, biological hazards are more of a risk. However, there is potential for all types of food hazards in a catering business, but it will depend on the situation, location and food provided.

The 4Cs

Caterers should follow the 4Cs of food hygiene to prevent food hazards. These ae cleaning, cooking, cross-contamination and chilling. These four simple rules cover essential food hygiene and safety practices.

Cleaning

According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), a lack of thorough cleaning is one of the most common reasons for prosecution. Cleaning is essential as it stops harmful pathogens and allergens from spreading, discourages pests, and is a legal requirement.

Catering businesses should have effective cleaning procedures and schedules to ensure that food storage, preparation, serving and eating areas are kept clean and safe. Adopting a ‘clean as you go’ approach will help keep areas constantly clean and tidy. It is also important to keep equipment clean.

Cooking

Some catering businesses may provide cooked food, which is prepared either on-site or off-site. Food must be cooked thoroughly before serving. If food is undercooked, it can cause food poisoning, particularly with high-risk foods such as meat, poultry, fish and rice. Cooking at the correct temperature for the appropriate time will kill any harmful bacteria. It is also important to hot hold food properly (see the safely storing food section).

The cooking method, time and temperature will depend on the type of food. However, businesses should always follow the cooking instructions on food packaging (where present), and food must always be piping hot before being served. When cooking, food should reach at least 70°C and stay at that temperature for 2 minutes (or at an equivalent temperature and time, i.e. 80°C for 6 seconds). Reheated food should be at least 75°C for 30 seconds. In Scotland, the regulations require reheated food to be at least 82°C. It is advisable to test the food temperature with a clean, calibrated probe to ensure it is properly cooked.

Food Safety For Caterers
Avoiding Cross-Contamination

Cross-contamination

Foodborne illnesses usually occur due to the transfer of harmful bacteria between people, food, surfaces and equipment. This is known as cross-contamination, and it is one of the most common causes of food poisoning (FSA). It can also occur with chemicals, e.g. spraying chemicals in the air that can land on food, surfaces and equipment. Where allergens are concerned, it is known as cross-contact. This is where products containing allergens are often unintentionally transferred to allergen-free ones.

Catering businesses must ensure they prevent cross-contamination and cross-contact as much as possible, which can be achieved by:

  • Good personal hygiene, e.g. washing hands thoroughly.
  • Using separate areas, equipment and utensils for different types of food, including for self-serving.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting equipment, cleaning materials and utensils before use.
  • Storing food correctly, e.g. raw meat below ready-to-eat and cooked food in the refrigerator.
  • Storing allergenic foods and non-allergenic foods separately, including ingredients and prepared food.
  • Covering open food, e.g. buffets.
  • Adopting a high standard of cleanliness.
  • Preventing and controlling pests.

Chilling

Certain foods, e.g. those with use-by dates and ready-to-eat foods, must be stored chilled to be safe. Chilling does not kill harmful bacteria, but it does stop them from growing. If food is improperly chilled, it can enter the danger zone and encourage pathogens to grow, increasing the risk of food poisoning.

Catering businesses must ensure that food is properly chilled and stored correctly, for example:

  • Not keeping chilled food out of the refrigerator for long during preparation.
  • Refrigerator temperatures are at 5°C or below, and freezer temperatures are at least -18°C or below. If using cool boxes, the same temperature must be maintained and checked. It may be worth having vehicles with suitable refrigeration units if transport times are longer.
  • Food is stored correctly within the refrigerator, e.g. raw meat and poultry at the bottom or in separate fridges/cool boxes.
  • Defrost food in the fridge overnight and in accordance with the instructions on the packaging.
  • Always follow the storage instructions on food packaging and monitor use-by dates.

Personal hygiene in catering

Personal hygiene is vital when working with food. It includes many different aspects of the body, clothing and habits, such as handwashing, protective clothing, hair, jewellery, smoking, illnesses etc. If catering staff do not follow good personal hygiene practices, they can contaminate food with hazards through direct contact and cross-contamination.

Catering businesses should instruct and train workers on the expected standards of personal hygiene when working with food.

It can include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Washing hands regularly and thoroughly, e.g. after visiting the toilet, after handling raw meat and before handling and preparing food.
  • Tying hair back and/or covering it with a hat.
  • Short fingernails, no false fingernails and no nail varnish.
  • No jewellery or watches, except a plain wedding band.
  • No strong perfumes or other toiletries, which could taint food.
  • Wearing suitable clean protective clothing, such as hairnets, gloves and aprons, and changing it regularly.
  • No coughing or sneezing over food and preparation/serving areas.
  • No smoking around food, including in catering vehicles.
  • Discouraging behaviours, e.g. touching the face/hair, spitting, chewing gum and picking teeth/nose.

 

Under Regulation 852/2004, food handlers must maintain high standards of personal hygiene and cleanliness.

Staff illnesses

If workers are ill, it can compromise food safety. Business owners and employers have a legal responsibility to ensure that staff (including themselves) do not handle food if they have an infection. It also applies if they show any symptoms of food poisoning, e.g. vomiting and diarrhoea, and have any infected wounds, skin infections or sores. Any cuts and sores should be covered with brightly coloured waterproof plasters or dressings, even if they are not infected.

Catering businesses should have reporting procedures for when food handlers have gastrointestinal symptoms, Hepatitis A, and wounds, sores and skin conditions. If a worker has diarrhoea or vomiting, they should report it to the owner/manager immediately. If they are at home, they should stay there or go home straight away if they are at work. They must not return to work until 48 hours after their symptoms have stopped.

Catering For A Large Event

Food allergens in catering

Legally, catering businesses must inform customers in writing if any of the 14 allergens are in the ingredients of the food (and drink) prepared and served. It will apply to pre-packed, pre-packed for direct sale (PPDS) and non-pre-packed (loose) food.

Pre-packed

These are foods that are already in packaging before being sold. They are in packaging that has to be opened to be altered and are ready for sale. Most catering businesses will likely buy and sell pre-packed food, such as bottled and canned drinks, biscuits, chocolate and other snacks.

There has to be an ingredient list, with all of the allergens emphasised, on the packaging. Caterers should check the labels to ensure the allergens are clear before serving pre-packed foods to customers.

Pre-packed for direct sale (PPDS)

PPDS foods are prepared and packed on the same premises where sold and before they are ordered or selected by customers. For example, if a caterer makes salads, sandwiches or other foods on-site and puts them in packaging ready for sale, this will apply.

The regulations have recently changed regarding PPDS food. Natasha’s Law came into force on 1st October 2021. Businesses must now label PPDS foods with a full ingredients list, with all of the allergens emphasised, on the packaging.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has further information on the allergen labelling changes for PPDS foods.

Non-pre-packed (loose)

Non-pre-packed foods will include meals prepared, cooked/ready-to-eat and served to customers and any loose foods selected from displays, e.g. buffets.

Catering businesses must provide allergen information for all loose foods containing any of the 14 allergens. They can do this by adding complete allergen information to menus or putting it on a chalkboard. They can also provide written information packs or a notice informing customers on how to obtain allergen information.

Precautions

When preparing food, catering businesses must ensure that food allergens are handled and managed effectively to prevent cross-contact, which can be achieved by:

  • Including allergenic hazards in HACCP systems and putting controls in place.
  • Providing allergen training for staff, including what to do in an emergency if a customer has an allergic reaction.
  • Looking for hidden allergenic ingredients, e.g. Worcestershire sauce contains anchovies (fish).
  • Preparing and storing allergen-containing products separately from non-allergen products,, e.g. using separate equipment, such as colour-coded boards.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and equipment thoroughly where separation is not possible.
  • Carefully checking pre-packed food labels for allergenic ingredients.
  • Labelling any ingredient containers clearly with the allergens they contain.
  • Labelling allergen-free prepared foods and keeping them separate during transit.
  • Recording allergen information accurately, including product specification sheets, ingredients labels and recipes of the dishes.

 

Unlike bacteria, allergens are not affected by cooking. Caterers will also need to consider various dietary requirements and food intolerances. Avoid cross-contact as much as possible when preparing and handling food.

Storing Food In The Fridge Safely

Safely storing food in catering

Catering businesses will store a variety of foods on the premises, such as:

  • Ambient, e.g. dried goods, such as bread, sugar, flour, rice, pasta, coffee and tea.
  • Chilled, e.g. refrigerated foods, such as sandwiches, salads, butter, desserts and milk.
  • Frozen, e.g. foods kept in the freezer, such as ice cream, fish, chips and vegetables.

 

If caterers prepare and serve food on-site, they may also use storage facilities provided by other businesses. Regardless, all food must be stored correctly to prevent contamination from food hazards and to keep it fresh, so good quality, safe food is served.

Here are some top tips:

  • Check all food deliveries before putting them into storage and reject anything that could compromise food safety and quality.
  • Keep dry goods in sealed, labelled containers.
  • Keep storage areas clean and tidy.
  • Do not store any food, equipment or utensils on the ground.
  • Have an effective stock rotation system, e.g. First In First Out (FIFO).
  • Regularly check the temperatures of fridges and freezers.
  • For pre-packed foods, always follow the storage instructions on the packaging.
  • Where possible, store raw and ready-to-eat foods separately. If it is not possible, keep higher risk foods, e.g. raw meat and poultry, below ready-to-eat and cooked foods.
  • Allergen-containing foods must be kept separate from other foods.
  • Store chemicals and cleaning equipment away from food storage areas.
  • Keep an eye on use-by dates and best before dates, and dispose of any food that has expired. Using food beyond its use-by date is unlawful.
  • Label any non-pre-packed foods with the name and any allergens.
  • Label any chilled and frozen food with dates put into storage.
  • If on-site food storage areas are not adequate or hygiene standards are poor, it should be raised with the facility and/or customer.

Hot holding

Some caterers may hot hold food, e.g. in heated display units, bain-maries and during deliveries to events, which provides a perfect opportunity for harmful bacteria to grow if it is not at the correct temperature. Using an insulated hot-box during deliveries will help maintain temperatures, but it is important to check the temperature regularly.

When hot holding food, it must be held at a temperature of 63°C or above. Food can fall below this temperature for up to two hours during display or service. However, if not used after this time, it should be disposed of properly. It is always best to throw out any leftovers to minimise the risk of food poisoning.

Chilled display

Some catering businesses may provide chilled food for self-serving, e.g. buffets, or deliver it to events. Before putting any food into chilled units, they must be at the correct temperature before use, i.e. set at 5°C or below. The temperature should be checked at least once a day (using a clean probe between chilled food). Display all chilled food for the shortest possible time.

When delivering chilled foods, it is best to use a cool box with a thermometer inside to monitor the temperature. Cold foods should be held below 8°C, but ideally between 0-5°C. They can be held above 8°C for up to four hours, but only once.

Food From Caterers

Safely serving food in catering

Food contamination can also occur during food preparation and service. All areas and equipment should be kept in good repair and clean. All staff handling and serving food must maintain a high standard of personal hygiene at all times.

When serving food:

  • Take extra care when handling and serving ready-to-eat foods, as bacteria and allergens will not be killed by cooking or reheating.
  • Provide and use utensils to serve wherever possible to avoid direct touching of food.
  • Follow hot holding guidance where food has to be kept hot before serving, and the same for chilled.
  • Follow the 4Cs.

 

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has further guidance for businesses that deliver food to customers. Caterers should follow this advice if preparing food off-site and then delivering it to events.

Waste Management

Waste management in catering

Catering businesses are likely to produce mostly food and packaging waste. If waste management is inadequate, it can encourage pests and may even result in infestations. It can also increase the risk of food becoming contaminated with harmful pathogens. Rotten food can start to smell as it deteriorates, which customers will find unpleasant.

All caterers should have appropriate provisions for the segregation, storage and removal of waste, for example:

  • Not allowing waste to accumulate by removing it regularly from food areas.
  • Having appropriate bins inside and outside the food premises, e.g.:
    – Sufficient in number.
    – Different types of bins for different wastes.
    – Bins with foot pedals, so no hand touching.
    – Bins with tight-fitting lids to prevent pests.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting bins regularly.
  • Lining bins with appropriate liners.
  • Regularly emptying bins inside and outside.
  • Ensuring bins are placed and kept in areas designated for waste disposal.
  • Keeping outside bins locked when not in use.
  • Ensuring adequate waste facilities if providing on-site catering.
Pest

Pest control in catering

A pest is any insect or animal which can contaminate food with harmful pathogens and become an infestation if uncontrolled. They can also introduce physical hazards, e.g. contaminating food with droppings or the pest itself.

Pests in food businesses are relatively common, and EHOs close down food businesses due to pest infestations more than any other problem.

Many different types of pests can contaminate food. The ones that may be in and around catering on-site and off-site premises may include:

  • Rodents – Mice and rats.
  • Insects – Flies, ants and cockroaches.
  • Stored product insects – Beetles, particularly weevils, can be found in flours, grains and cereals.
  • Birds – Pigeons (outside).

 

Some examples of pest prevention and control methods include:

  • Checking the premises regularly for gaps or holes that could allow pests into buildings.
  • Ensuring external areas around the premises are kept clear of vegetation and anything that could encourage or harbour pests.
  • Looking for evidence of pests or pest damage when checking deliveries, e.g. insects or gnawed packaging. Do not accept deliveries if there are any signs.
  • Keeping the premises clean and tidy, particularly where food is prepared, served and eaten.
  • Removing internal and external waste regularly.
  • Using fly screens on any open windows.
  • Not having open bins and keeping lids closed when not in use.
  • Storing food correctly, e.g. not on the floor, and keeping it covered or well-sealed.
  • Having an approved contractor to manage and monitor pest control within and around the premises where possible.

 

This is a general guide for caterers, as it is an in-depth topic. The exact food safety and hygiene precautions required will depend on many different factors, such as the number of people catered for, off-site or on-site preparation, the type of location/venue, the facilities available and the type of food served. It is vital that each event is planned carefully and HACCP systems are in place to ensure safe food is provided.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has a food safety management pack called Safer Food, Better Business. It can help catering businesses meet the requirements of food safety and hygiene legislation.

For catering businesses serving food at outdoor events, it is best to contact the local authority environmental health team for further advice, as additional precautions will be required. They will be able to advise on complying with food safety and hygiene laws in outdoor settings. There is also guidance from the CIEH.

We also offer various food hygiene and HACCP courses, which can help caterers understand their legal obligations and assist them in achieving a five-star food hygiene rating.

  • Food Safety for Retail Unit pagefood hygiene safety for retail course

    Food Safety and Hygiene for Retail Level 2

    £20 + VAT
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  • Food Safety for Catering Level 3 Unit pageFood safety for caterers Level 3

    Food Safety for Catering Level 3

    £79 + VAT
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  • Allergen Awareness Unit pageAllergen Awareness course

    Allergen Awareness

    £20 + VAT
    View course
  • Food hygiene for catering units slidefood hygiene for caterers course level 2

    Food Safety and Hygiene for Catering Level 2

    £20 + VAT
    View course