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When we sit down to eat a meal with family or grab a sandwich to eat on the train, most of us do not give a second thought to potential hazards and risks in doing so. We trust food manufacturers and food businesses to get things right and protect us from things that could harm us.
Unfortunately, there are cases of foodborne illness and allergen cross-contamination. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) reported in 2020 that it estimates there are around 2.4 million cases of foodborne illness happening every year in the UK. This is a huge increase from their 2009 estimate which was around a million cases. As well as this, cross-contamination poses a huge risk to many. According to the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI), allergy is the most chronic disease in Europe, with up to 20% of those living with allergies suffering debilitating forms which impact greatly on health and risk their life.
With such risks, protections need to be put in place. Thankfully, the UK has strict food safety laws and regulations. HACCP has been a legal requirement in the UK since 2006 and was implemented to keep consumers safe from hazards within our food and drink.
What is HACCP?
HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Point. Every food business in the UK must have a HACCP plan to comply with the law. However, HACCP is not just a regulation in the UK. It was first introduced in the USA in the 1960s and is an internationally recognised system to manage and prevent food safety and hazards.
Essentially, HACCP identifies all the potential hazards that can enter food and how these can be mitigated to produce safe foods for consumers, reducing their risk of illness or allergic reaction. HACCP is not solely a system for food outlets and retailers. It can and should be used throughout an entire supply chain. Having a HACCP plan also reassures consumers that food businesses are taking hazards seriously and builds trust with consumers.
Why is HACCP important?
Implementing a HACCP plan reduces the risks to consumers by controlling potential hazards that may be found in food. It also reduces the recall of any products that may have been contaminated due to processing or human error. HACCP means that food safety hazards are a priority for food businesses. This helps to prevent foodborne illnesses and allergic reactions.
What is HACCP used for?
Essentially, HACCP is a preventative measure and helps businesses not only avoid hazards, but also the associated costs that hazards bring such as stock destruction or product recalls. Having a HACCP plan also provides evidence of due diligence if there were to be any legal action resulting from food contamination. All food businesses must have a HACCP plan as a legal requirement.
Why is food hygiene training important?
HACCP is a legal requirement. But simply having a HACCP plan is not enough. Food safety is not solely the responsibility of the big bosses in the company who write HACCP plans; it is everyone’s responsibility, whether they are a farmer, the CEO of a large corporation, a chef or a waiter serving customers. If a person’s job involves working with food, the law states that they must understand their responsibilities when it comes to food safety. For this reason, food hygiene training is important.
Food hygiene training allows those working with food or around food to learn about their responsibilities. Training food handlers in food safety allows them to learn how to handle and store food correctly as well as how to clean food preparation areas correctly.
Cross-contamination happens when food is not handled correctly and means that allergens or harmful pathogens can pass from one place to another. An example of cross-contamination would be using the same surface for preparing raw meat and then preparing fresh fruit. Even the smallest amount of cross-contamination can lead to a severe allergic reaction or food poisoning.
Bacteria such as E. coli or salmonella spread easily on countertops, but people’s hands are usually the main culprit when it comes to cross-contamination. Food hygiene allows those handling foods to gain a better understanding of how to avoid cross-contamination.
Aside from being important for health and wellbeing, food hygiene training also has other benefits for food businesses.
Food hygiene training does not just prevent risks to consumers, it also means that food waste is avoided. Learning how to store food correctly avoids foods going out of date or spoiling. This saves a business money as well as time.
Food hygiene training allows food businesses to become more efficient. If staff know how to improve food storage and work hygienically, the business will be more efficient. Errors in food preparation and storage will be avoided. This means that customers will have better service and ultimately a more positive experience with a food business.
Positivity in the workplace
Whilst food hygiene training is an important part of a HACCP plan, it also has the advantage of improving workplace motivation. With employees fully trained in safe food handling, it avoids workplace complacency and forges a business-wide positive attitude.
If a food business continually impresses its clients with good quality food by upholding good food hygiene practices, a positive relationship is fostered between business and consumer. Customers will recognise the business’s efforts when it comes to food safety. This means that they’ll not only return, but they’ll also recommend the business to others.
What are the main principles of HACCP?
Every food business must have a HACCP plan based on seven principles. This plan must ensure that food is kept safe from hazards including biological, chemical, physical and allergenic hazards.
Let’s take a look at the seven principles of HACCP.
1. Conduct a hazard analysis.
2. Identify Critical Control Points (CCPs).
3. Establish critical limits.
4. Establish a monitoring system.
5. Establish corrective actions.
6. Establish record-keeping procedures.
7. Establish verification procedures.
Conduct a hazard analysis
The first part of a HACCP plan looks at evaluating a food business’s processes and identifying where hazards could be introduced. Hazards can be biological, chemical, physical or allergenic. A biological hazard is something such as bacterial or viral contamination that would cause a foodborne illness, for example E. coli, salmonella or campylobacter.
A chemical hazard is a hazard where a chemical could contaminate food such as a cleaning product used on a surface. A physical hazard could be where parts of machinery or tools could contaminate food such as metal or plastic fragments.
An allergenic hazard concerns contamination through the unwanted presence of allergens. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) follows EU food labelling requirements which state 14 main food allergens that must be labelled on the packaging. These are celery, cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, lupin, milk, molluscs, mustard, tree nuts, peanuts, sesame seeds, soybeans, and sulphur dioxide/sulphites (at certain concentrations).
The person carrying out the hazard analysis must be equipped with the knowledge and experience of doing so. If not, the business must employ an external person to perform the analysis. Once hazards have been identified, the next step is evaluating the hazard and its potential risks. This helps to determine the severity of risk from a hazard.
Identify Critical Control Points
Once all hazards have been identified and analysed, the next step is to identify CCPs. CCPs are points where a hazard needs to be controlled as it presents a risk. At each CCP, preventative measures should be in place to prevent the hazard from occurring. This may mean that temperatures, time, pH or certain procedures are monitored either by machine or by individuals.
Establish critical limits
Once the control points have been established, the next step is establishing critical limits to control the hazard. For some elements, there may be regulatory limits such as temperatures of storing food. Each CCP must have a limit attached to it e.g. a specific time, pH level, chlorine level, salt level or temperature. If the critical limit is exceeded, corrective action is essential to maintain control over the product.
Establish a monitoring system
When critical control points and limits have been established, it’s not enough just to have them in place. An effective monitoring system is needed otherwise nobody would know whether the critical limits have been exceeded. A business must implement an effective system for monitoring limits to show that all procedures are controlled effectively. If this step does not happen, the HACCP is effectively worthless.
Physical observations on a regular, established basis will help ensure that the HACPP is effective. Good monitoring means that action can be taken to control a situation and rectify it before the hazard becomes out of control.
Establish corrective actions
If a critical limit is exceeded or not met, the HACCP plan must outline what needs to happen next to correct it. Any corrective action needs to ensure that any product or foodstuff is removed and does not pass on to the next stage of processing.
At this point, corrective actions should also include analysing how the problem occurred and fixing the cause of the problem. Corrective actions must control what is produced and released as well as prevent the situation from happening again.
Establish record-keeping procedures
Food businesses must keep accurate records to prove that all their critical limits have been monitored and met and that their production system is well controlled. There are regulatory requirements in certain areas for this.
Establish verification procedures
Every business’s HACPP plan must be checked and validated. This ensures that the plan is effective at preventing hazards. The end product should also be tested to check that all controls are effective. It’s also important that record-keeping measures are checked and monitored too.
If all the above principles are followed by food businesses, this minimises risks to consumers when it comes to the foods they eat.
How to write a HACCP plan
There are many steps to take in writing a HACCP. Let’s break down the process.
Firstly, a business should pull together a team of those who are most knowledgeable about the food product and processes involved within the business. Of course, the number of people and level of experience will be dependent on the size of the business. Many smaller businesses employ an external person to write their HACCP.
The HACCP team should produce a description of the foods, their ingredients and their processing and distribution methods. There should also be guidance on how to use the food or drink for the consumers and who the intended consumers are.
Product and processes review
The team should review all the food products and the processes involved in making the products with fresh eyes. It’s easy to become complacent if you’ve worked somewhere for a while and have formed habits. Being reflective is crucial at this stage of writing a HACCP plan. It ensures that the food is prepared to the best standards and that all processes are up to date, from raw material to consumption.
A simple way of making processing clear, especially when it comes to any revised processes or updates, is to create a flow diagram that includes all the steps.
Follow the HACCP principles
The next step in writing the HACCP plan is to go through the seven HACCP principles outlined above. There are many templates and tools available that can help you write the HACCP plan and produce it in a format that is easy for everyone in the food business to follow.
For small businesses with less than 50 employees, MyHACCP is a web tool that helps them through the process of writing their HACCP. It is an easy way of creating a food management system to identify and control hazards that could occur within the business.
What does HACCP identify and prevent?
HACCP identifies hazards and prevents illness and injury from foods.
As explained, there are four main types of hazards when it comes to food safety:
- Biological – Such as harmful bacteria.
- Chemical – Chemical contamination.
- Physical – The presence of physical objects in food.
- Allergenic – The presence of allergens in food.
Biological hazards are actually microbiological. The four most commonly found bacterial pathogens in food are campylobacter, salmonella, E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes. These pathogens all cause food poisoning, which causes a range of unpleasant symptoms and can even result in death.
Biological hazards are found in raw materials and happen as a result of cross-contamination, multiplication of bacteria and the toxins they produce, and the survival of any toxins or spores within the food after heating.
Chemical hazards are any chemicals that are not intended to be included in the food product or exceed the level which is deemed safe within a food. Chemical hazards include any cleaning products used in the environment or also agricultural chemicals like pesticides. They are found within raw materials, cleaning products, pesticides, weedkillers, poisonous foods such as toadstools, and additives in excess. Chemical hazards can cause chronic illness and food poisoning.
Physical hazards are foreign bodies or objects in food. They pose a hazard due to the potential for cuts to the mouth, choking, breaking teeth, injuring a person internally after consumption or burning. Physical hazards usually originate from the production and/or preparation of food but sometimes remain from the raw materials. Physical hazards include pieces of glass, metal, stones or nails.
Allergenic hazards often come under a sub-category of a chemical hazard, but a HACCP team can decide to create a separate hazard category for allergens for ease. Whilst any food could cause an allergic reaction, certain allergens are more likely to provoke a response. As explained, the FSA outlines 14 main allergens. On 1st October 2021, Natasha’s Law came into effect in the UK which states that food businesses must declare all known allergens clearly on their packaging.
A HACCP therefore must identify and prevent illness or injury from all four of the above categories.
Is HACCP a legal requirement?
Yes, HACCP is now a legal requirement for all food businesses. The UK Government follows the EU requirements when it comes to HACCP. Regulation (EC) No. 852/2004 from the European Parliament outlines in Article 5 that “Food business operators shall put in place, implement and maintain a permanent procedure or procedures based on the HACCP principles.”
Failure to follow the HACCP requirements could result in legal action being taken and ultimately closure of a food business.