Food processing plants and catering establishments must always be thorough in handling and conserving food ingredients because goods produced in factories with poor hygiene standards or meals served in such restaurants can cause food poisoning. Both must always be extremely attentive as to how they treat fresh produce and ingredients, not only during hot summer months, when uncooked items can spoil easily, but throughout the year.
In northern Germany, this year, the E. coli O 104 food poisoning outbreak killed a number of people in May and June. Around the same time, in Japan, about a dozen people who had eaten steak tartar at a certain restaurant were sickened by E. coli O111, and some died. In the Japanese case, it did not take long time for the authorities to trace the origin of the food poisoning. In Germany, however, cucumbers and then bean sprouts were initially suspected as the cause of the outbreak, but, if I am not mistaken, the investigation has not yet been definitively solved. These cases were reported widely in Europe and Japan, but many cases of food poisoning from various sources around the world, especially in developing countries where hygiene standards still leave much to be desired, are believed to go unreported, killing large numbers of people.
Any food manufacturer or caterer in industrialized countries who has been fingered as the origin of food poisoning, even once, would require great effort and time to regain customer confidence. A small or medium place would find such an incident catastrophic and would be forced out of business. The consumers who become virulently sick and even die would be the foremost victims of food poisoning, but the establishment being forced out of business would mean not only the termination of jobs there but also the loss of livelihood for the workers’ families. So in order to prevent the tragic consequences of food poisoning from occurring, both the employer and the staff in such establishments must work together as a team, ensuring that staff training is thorough. However, this is easier said than done.
More than 10 years ago, I visited a West African country to organize a four-day seminar on workplace health, safety and hygiene in the food processing industry. The participants of the seminar included some Labour Ministry officials and the representatives of the employers’ and workers’ organizations from different parts of the country. We spent one full day out of the four visiting several factories. This gave all of us the opportunity to re-learn by observing some best practices or areas still requiring improvement on the issues that had been discussed in the seminar.
One of the factories visited was a subsidiary of a large multinational company operating throughout the world. The factory manager sent from the head office in Switzerland had been in the post for many years. As might have been expected in a factory whose head office was in Switzerland, the workplace was tidy and clean. The place must have been exemplary in food hygiene in the country. At the end of our factory visit and discussion with the factory manager, I posed him a question. As the country was still poor, I imagined a huge gap between the understanding and practice of food safety and hygiene on the part of the workers and the standards he expected of them. Under such a circumstance, I was interested in hearing the kind of effort he had had to make in staff training.
Food safety and hygiene experts would say that washing hands frequently with clean water would be the basic prevention against E. coli food poisoning. What the factory manager told us was something similar. When he arrived in the country, he had repeatedly instructed his employees to wash hands before each meal. Initially, he said, the workers had raced to the washroom at noon to wash their hands, after which they went to the toilet, but many apparently then went straight to the canteen without washing their hands again. So he had to instruct them thoroughly on personal hygiene. However, some had apparently argued back, pointing out the fact that they had already washed their hands after work, and this, they had thought, would constitute the act of hand-washing before a meal, as prescribed by the manager. He told us that it had not been easy to make them understand why they needed to wash their hands again after going to the toilet and before going to the canteen. Having patiently repeated thorough staff training, he was finally satisfied with the result, but said that the same training had to be repeated constantly as there were always new recruits.
Thorough staff training in food hygiene seems to be easier said than done, even in Switzerland which is known throughout the world for its high standards. Only a few years ago I had an example of the problem at the airport in Geneva. My check-in formalities having been completed quickly, I had some time to kill before departure. So I decided to have a sandwich and arrived at a shop where two men were standing in line, one being in the process of taking a bill out of his wallet to pay for the sandwich he had just bought. The young shopkeeper received the money and took a smaller bill along with some coins out of the cash register to hand him back as his change.
The shopkeeper, who was wearing a pair of latex gloves, received the bill from the client and touched others in the cash register. But when the man in front of me asked for a certain sandwich in the glass case, the shopkeeper, to my great surprise, grabbed it with his right hand still covered with the same latex glove and placed it on a paper plate. The sandwiches in the glass case were not in cellophane bags. I found it incredible to see him picking a sandwich up for a customer with the same latex gloves with which he had touched different bills. I do not know if there were tongs available there for him, but I did not see him use them.
The shopkeeper probably made new sandwiches in the kitchen when there were no customers to be served. From the food safety and hygiene point of view, he must have been instructed to wear the latex gloves when performing that task, rather than picking ingredients up with his bare hands and fingers. But after making new sandwiches, if he touched bills and coins while wearing the same gloves, he did not seem to have fully understood what the gloves were really for. Having witnessed this laxness, I left without buying anything.