Heading out for a nice meal, whether it’s a dinner date or a simple lunchtime catch-up, should be a pleasant event. It certainly shouldn’t be marred with concerns over getting sick. For both the eatery and the customer, the last thing anyone wants is for the food to cause illness or worse.

The issue of cross-contamination and cross-contact is, fortunately, completely avoidable with simple procedures—so long as they are followed properly.

Cross-contamination: what is it?

People can potential become very sick from cross-contamination. It occurs when bacteria or other potentially harmful microorganisms are unintentionally transferred from one place to another, in this case, from one food item to another.

Cross-contamination can happen in three major ways:

  • Food to food—for example, if raw meat touches cooked meat in storage.
  • Equipment to food—for example, using a knife to cut raw meat, then the same knife to cut vegetables.
  • People to food—for example, handling raw meat then proceeding to handle cooked meat without washing hands.

Cross-contact: what is it?

Cross-contact is different from cross-contamination, and the terms should not be used interchangeably. This is when foods mix proteins after coming into contact with each other. Instead of bacteria being the problems as with cross-contamination, the problem here is the trace element of another food item being present. Usually, the amount is so small that it cannot be seen. But for people who are highly allergic to certain food items, even a trace element of that food can be enough to trigger a reaction.

The bottom line is cross-contamination causes sickness. Cross-contact causes allergic reactions.

The duty of a commercial kitchen

The safety of customers is paramount. According to the government website, complying with food safety laws requires businesses to follow food hygiene practises. It outlines that it is the business’ responsibility to prevent any items that come into contact with food from transferring anything to the food substance, as well as having traceability of any such food contact materials. In terms of bacteria prevention, it is expected that businesses have a plan based on the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point principles (HAACP). HAACP requires businesses to identify and avoid, remove, or reduce any hazard to food, as well as monitoring any critical control points along the supply chain. Employers are also expected to train staff on hygiene practises, though this can be a formal programme or informal training.

To avoid cross-contact issues, customers need to alert their waiter of any potential allergens. The business should be able to inform the customer of any allergen risks in this instance.

Avoiding cross-contamination

Restaurants can reduce the likelihood of cross-contamination. Key areas include:

Hand washing—before working with food, staff should wash their hands. Hands should also be washed prior to handling any food, and after handling or touching any raw meat, fish, eggs, or unwashed vegetables. Hands should be washed after going to the toilet, using phones or touching light switches, door handles, cash registers, or money. Also, hands should be washed after carrying out other tasks such as emptying or touching bins or tending to a cut or wound.

Proper hand-washing technique has been outlined by the Food Standards Agency as:

  • Wet hands thoroughly under warm water
  • Squirt liquid soap onto palm
  • Rub to a lather
  • Rub the palm of one hand over the back of the other hand and fingers. Repeat with other hand.
  • Put palms together and interlock fingers. Rub in-between fingers.
  • Rub around thumbs, then rub fingertips against palms.
  • Rinse off soap with clean water and dry on a disposable towel. Turn tap off with the towel and dispose of towel.

Wear clean clothes—aprons should also be worn, especially when handling unwrapped food.

Remove jewelry and watches—bacteria can be caught in the nooks of watches or jewelery.

Tie hair back—or wear a hairnet.

Avoid eating or drinking—when preparing food, staff should not be allowed to eat or drink.

Clean preparation—avoid coughing, sneezing, or touching your face over food.

Tend to any cuts—cuts should be covered by a brightly coloured waterproof plaster.

Make sure your staff know not to wash raw meat. Some people believe washing raw meat rinses off bacteria, but it actually increases the risk of food poisoning. The splashing water from the meat being rinsed under the tap can travel more than 50cm away from the source, which in turn, carries bacteria all around the room. Washing raw meat effectively spreads the germs around.

Having separate utensils and equipment available is also important. Have separate equipment for each type of food; raw red meat should have its own set of cutting boards, containers, knives, etc. Vegetables would have their own set, and raw poultry its own set, and so on. A common method of implementation is to have a colour coded system in the kitchen; for example, red-stickered utensils, boards, and containers are used for raw meat, green stickers for vegetables, and so on.

Monitor equipment wear and tear and replace as needed. Bacteria can hide away in the crevices and cracks of cutting boards, and these should be replaced. Also, consider ‘hidden’ contact too—can opener blades touch food when they enter a can, so don’t forget to clean these too!

Unless you are using disposable items like polystyrene cups that can be thrown away, cleaning utensils properly is key. Also, ensure that all work surfaces are thoroughly cleaned after use too. This means warm water, soap, the works—rinsing is not enough. Invest in good-quality cleaning products and make sure the kitchen is more than rinsed down! Clean dishes and utensils, once cool, should be stored on clean shelves away from floor level. Avoid towel drying dishes as this can cause contamination from towels.

Avoiding cross-contact

Cross-contact is also avoidable with good practices in place. Many of the same practises used for avoiding cross-contamination work for reducing the risk of cross-contact too. Washing hands in the method stated above, cleaning surfaces and equipment between each task, separate utensils for different food types, all of these methods work to help reduce cross-contact too. So, when staff wash their hands after handling fish, for example, as recommended to do so to avoid cross-contamination, they will also reduce the risk of cross-contact of the fish proteins to the next food item they prepare.

It’s important to be aware of the most common allergens. The top eight allergens as listed by FARE are milk, wheat, eggs, soy, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, and fish. But they also stress that more than 170 foods have been known to cause an allergic reaction.

The main thing to remember is the difference between bacteria and proteins, as this is the fundamental difference in cross-contamination and cross-contact. Where proper cooking will usually remove all bacteria on contaminated food, cooking will not remove trace elements of food proteins that have been cross-contacted. This must be dealt with accordingly: where possible, use different counters and cooking equipment for different food types, such a separate grill for fish and another for meat. If this is not possible, you must make customers aware of this. Consider the case of McDonald’s—the fast food chain launched a wrap that is, ingredient-wise, vegan friendly. Though the food item itself contains no animal products, it is toasted in the same toaster that their other buns do, which contain milk. As such, there is a risk of cross-contact of milk proteins from the buns to the toaster and to the vegan wraps. The chain has marked the wraps as vegetarian rather than vegan in order to accommodate for this.

Awareness is a vital step in keeping kitchens food-safe. Ensuring your kitchen maintains a high level of attention to potential risks will keep your customers feeling safe and comfortable.

Amy Hodgetts is a specialist writer in lifestyle pieces and creative writing. A content writer and web content optimizer, she has built a strong foundation in the field as a graduate from the University of Glasgow, achieving an undergraduate degree in English Language.

Food Safety, Outside Insights, Story