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Food preparation often happens in busy, hot and high-pressured environments. It is important that any food that is served is safe and fit for consumption. This means it must be hygienically prepared and free from contaminants, including physical items.
What is meant by the term physical food contamination?
The physical contamination of food can occur in any premises that handles and prepares food. This includes:
Physical contamination happens when a hazard in the form of a physical item enters food.
Finding a physical contaminant in your food can be extremely upsetting and distressing. It could also lead to illness as some physical food contaminants will also provide a breeding ground for bacteria. Physical contaminants can also be a serious choking hazard.
Physical food contaminants enter food accidentally the vast majority of the time. Occasionally they are placed there purposefully as an act of direct sabotage.
When the safety or quality of a food product is called into question this is referred to as a food incident.
These incidents are widely regarded as either due to:
- Contamination within manufacturing, preparation, or distribution of food; or
- Environmental pollution from chemical or oil spills, radiation leaks etc.
A food incident might result in the recall of certain products. In this instance, it is especially important for catering businesses to be able to identify their supply chain so they can take the correct action and return or dispose of any affected products.
Contaminated food should be removed from circulation and the local authority of the business premises should be informed. The Food Standards Agency’s FSA Incidents Response Team can assist with advice on recalling items.
In the last six months of 2019 there were more than 25 food products that had to be removed from circulation over safety concerns, according to government data.
After a food related incident, businesses are advised to conduct a Root Cause Analysis (RCA). This can be done with guidance from your local authority. The results of the RCA can help businesses to improve their practices and avoid a further incident occurring. They can also help food related businesses to understand more about traceability and how to monitor their supply chain.
What causes physical contamination of food?
Food might become contaminated for various reasons. It could be because something that was on the person who prepared or served the food has dropped into the dish, a piece of packaging has been left behind, or due to inadequate cooking and serving utensils being used.
The presence of a physical contaminant may be an unfortunate accident, such as a piece of hair from a server falling into a dish as it is on the way from the kitchen to the customer’s table. It could also be indicative of a more serious problem within the business, such as a disorganised and unclean food preparation environment.
Physical food contaminants might enter food whilst it is being prepared in the kitchen, on the journey from the kitchen to the customer, or may even be present from before this time, when the food was picked and packed.
What is a physical contaminant in food?
There are four main types of contamination that can affect food and pose a hazard to health:
Caused by microorganisms from living things or their by-products.
Usually caused by chemical additives from accidental contamination, such as toxins, cleaning products, oil, or pollutants.
This is usually caused by unhygienic food handling practices. Contaminants pass from one surface or object to another. This usually refers to biological contaminants but can occasionally include chemical or physical contaminants.
A physical contaminant is an object that is not designed for consumption and somehow ends up in a food item or meal. These can be man-made items or those of organic origin.
Examples of physical food contaminants:
- Jewellery or jewellery parts (such as beads).
- Plastic (usually from packaging).
- Dirt (from fresh produce that has not been adequately washed).
- Pips, stones, bones or shells.
- Debris from pests (such as fur or droppings).
- Flies or insects.
- Pieces of broken crockery or glass.
- Fingernails or false nails.
- Nail varnish peelings.
- Tin foil or baking paper.
Physical hazards found in food can sometimes be chemical and biological hazards as well. They vary in severity depending on the nature of the contaminant, but all can be dangerous if people accidentally chew or swallow them.
How should you prevent physical hazards from contaminating food?
The best way to minimise the chance of a physical contaminant ending up in food is to provide continual education and training to all staff and to provide a hygienic and clean environment for staff to work in.
Safe practices should be adopted by food handlers to avoid the physical contamination of food in a similar way to the safe practices adopted to avoid cross-contamination.
Tips for preventing physical food contamination:
- Ensure food safety training in the business is thorough and regularly refreshed.
- Maintain a clean and hygienic food preparation environment and encourage good housekeeping.
- Ensure long hair is always tied back and/or covered with a hair net or hat.
- Make sure food is handled as little as possible with hands; instead use tongs, serving spoons, ladles etc.
- Cover pans during cooking with an appropriate lid.
- Store items in the fridge in closed containers or covered with cling film.
- Wear bright coloured plasters in the kitchen after an injury, which are easy to spot. It is common for blue plasters to be worn by food handlers.
- If your business orders in ready meals to heat up, make sure you buy from reputable suppliers and do not use any items that come in broken or damaged packaging.
- Make sure fresh produce, such as fruit or vegetables, is washed thoroughly to prevent dirt or pests remaining on it. This is especially true for root vegetables or potatoes which can arrive with a significant amount of earth still on their skin.
- Store food away from cleaning materials such as sweeping brushes or mops.
- Use good quality cleaning cloths, sponges and scourer pads and discard them once they begin to fray or break apart.
- Conduct regular stocktakes to keep stock at appropriate levels and reduce waste and overcrowded shelves and surfaces.
- Know the signs to look out for that indicate pests are present and call in a relevant professional to deal with pests.
- Leave food out in the open air for any longer than needed.
- Allow rubbish to build up as this can encourage pests.
- Permit excessive jewellery to be worn. Staff should keep jewellery to a minimum (this includes service staff).
- Use baking trays or metal pans that are starting to corrode or the metal chip off. Discard them and purchase new ones.
- Serve ice by scooping it with a glass. Use tongs or a plastic/metal ice scoop.
- Underestimate the risk that a physical contaminant in food can pose, which can include serious illness or even a fatality.
In some cases, there are simple steps that can be taken to avoid food becoming physically contaminated. As with all hazards, it is always best to try to identify any risks and deal with them before they become a hazard. If this has not been done and an unfortunate incident has occurred, it is vital that businesses learn lessons from this and put procedures in place to avoid similar problems in future.
The chef has prepared a meal with care in a hygienic kitchen. It is a hot and hectic evening and once the meal is at the table the customer complains that there is a false eyelash in the meal. It has fallen off the waitress who served the meal, because the glue became unstuck due to the hot environment, and no one noticed.
This could have been easily dealt with beforehand by making it clear that fashion items such as glued on eyelashes are not appropriate in the workplace and explaining uniform requirements during the interview phase. If this communication did not suffice, once the employee arrived for their shift, they should have been asked to remove the item, or sent home if this was not possible.
A customer at a carvery finds a small piece of metal in their meal and almost swallows it. On closer inspection it appears to be a screw.
Carvery meals are often presented in a similar way to buffets, so guests can help themselves. Food is kept warn under bright hot lamps that shine from above.
It is very important that the correct bulbs are used, and all fixtures and fittings are properly secured to avoid the risk of any physical contaminants accidentally falling into the food below. These should be checked before and after every service and any equipment that is broken or has loose fitting parts should be removed from circulation until it has been fixed.
A diner in a busy chain restaurant sees a large piece of plastic in their meal and complains.
Due to the nature of the restaurant, many of the meals are bought in ready-made and heated up. The contaminant in this case is plastic from the film lid which has not been removed adequately before cooking. This could have been avoided if kitchen staff had worked with more care and attention or if they, or the server, had spotted it prior to it reaching the customer’s table. Preparing fresh food from scratch also helps to minimise problems like this occurring.
Effects of physical food contamination
When physical food contaminants enter food, they become a hazard to health and safety. This is because they should not be there and the person eating the meal is not expecting them to be there. Physical food contaminants are sometimes non-organic in nature; therefore, they are not designed to be ingested at all.
The effects of a customer finding a physical food contaminant can vary, depending on whether they find the contaminant prior to eating it, discover it in their mouths or swallow it. They also depend on the type of contaminant in question. There might also be consequences for the business that has allowed unsafe food to be served.
Physical contaminants in food can result in:
- Illness, as some physical contaminants will also contain biological contaminants.
- Broken teeth or damage to the soft tissues in the mouth.
- Customer distress.
- Lost revenue due to having to compensate the customer.
- Bad press and poor reviews.
- Loss of footfall due to negative attention.
- Legal action and fines.
How to prevent food poisoning after eating contaminated food
The way you would deal with eating contaminated food would depend on the type of contaminant you have ingested and how much.
Sometimes physical hazards that have found their way into food can also contain biological contaminants. This can lead to food poisoning.
The most common symptoms of food poisoning are:
- Sickness or nausea.
- Stomach cramps.
- Aches and pains.
- Lack of appetite.
- Tiredness and weakness.
- Slight fever.
Usually, the symptoms of food poisoning last 24-48 hours and can be eased with bed rest and over-the-counter medication. It is important to drink plenty of clear fluids when you have food poisoning to replace the fluids your body is losing.
In some cases, food poisoning can lead to hospitalisation, especially if it results in severe dehydration. In extreme cases, people have died from eating contaminated food.
If you find you have accidentally eaten sharp material, such as glass, which can damage your throat and insides, you will want to seek medical attention immediately.
Symptoms that indicate you have swallowed glass might include a crunching sensation between your teeth followed by a bleeding mouth or throat and pain or a burning sensation.
Large objects, such as screws or pieces of packaging, might be noticeable during chewing and should be removed from the mouth immediately to avoid swallowing them. The mouth should then be rinsed out with plenty of water.
It is important that the appropriate medical treatment is sought in cases of a person eating contaminated food. In the case of a broken tooth that has been caused by a hard object being present in the food, the services of a dentist would be required. If a customer is choking, one of the designated first aiders on site should respond and paramedics should be called.
If you feel unwell after eating contaminated food, always seek medical attention. Call your GP or visit a walk-in centre. In an emergency, always dial 999.
When can food become physically contaminated?
Certain behaviours can increase the risk of food being contaminated with foreign objects, such as:
- When it is left out in the open air, uncovered.
- Contaminants can enter food if pans are left on the stove without a lid during cooking.
- When food is prepared or packaged in an unclean and unhygienic environment.
- Buffets pose a risk as a lot of different people are handling and standing over food.
- When staff are poorly trained or careless with their food preparation.
- If kitchen staff and food handlers wear jewellery, false nails/eyelashes, or pale coloured plasters.
- If pests are not dealt with and flies are present.
- In cluttered, disorganised spaces where there is an abundance of items that could accidentally fall into food.
- Using inadequate or broken utensils to prepare or serve food.
- In places such as carveries where food is left out, often uncovered, under hot lamps.
With robust health and safety measures in place and a commitment to upholding best hygiene practices, businesses can significantly reduce the incidents of physical food contamination. Staff must be thoroughly trained, and all equipment, machinery and storage areas should be food safe, clean and fit for purpose.
Any unfortunate food incidents that do occur should be thoroughly investigated and the appropriate professional, scientific or medical advice sought, and procedures put into place to avoid similar incidents taking place in future.