Why are samples taken?
Samples are taken to monitor the microbiological quality of food produced and/or consumed within the Borough, as a result of local and national concerns regarding food or because a food complaint has been received or a consumer alleges food poisoning. Stafford Borough Council also participates in food sampling programmes run by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Public Health England (PHE).
Who tests the food?
Nobody sits and tastes the samples! They are normally taken to the PHE Laboratory, usually within four hours and always under temperature control. The results take approximately 10 days to be returned to the Regulatory Service.
What do the results mean?
There are four categories of results for food which has undergone microbiological examination.
Satisfactory results show a good microbiological quality. No further action is necessary.
Borderline results indicate that food is at the upper limit of acceptable microbiological quality. Further advice may be given and/or a visit to the premises may be made if thought to be necessary.
Unsatisfactory - potentially hazardous
Unsatisfactory results for hygiene indicator organisms show that the food is of a poor microbiological quality but is unlikely to cause food poisoning. Regulatory Services staff will undertake follow-up action including an investigation into possible causes of the result and this will usually include re-sampling the food and may include the sampling of ingredients.
Unsatisfactory results for pathogens indicate that a food is potentially injurious to health and/ or unfit for human consumption. These results require immediate remedial action and Environmental Health Officers will undertake an urgent, in-depth investigation of the causes of the result. The priority is to ensure the removal of any hazard to the public from the food chain as quickly as possible.
What does the Certificate of Examination say?
The laboratory looks for a number of types of bacteria that show the bacterial quality of the food and indicate possible sources of contamination.
Pathogens are the more serious types of bacteria - these include: Salmonella, Campylobacter, E.coli 0157, Staphylococcus aureus, Listeria, Clostridium perfringens and Bacillus.
If these types of bacteria are found then the food will be in the unacceptable/potentially hazardous category and will always result in further investigation by an Environmental Health Officer.
What action can you take now?
In general, if you produce food or handle open food and have received a sample result which is borderline or unsatisfactory, you should consider the following as possible reasons for the result:
Poor temperature control:
High-risk foods such as cooked meats, fish and poultry should be stored below 8°C or following the instructions on the label. Food should not be allowed to remain at room temperature for any longer than necessary during preparation or service. It is recommended that you record the temperature of refrigerators twice daily and that the accuracy of any displays is checked. All food should achieve a core temperature of 75°C or above during cooking or reheating and hot food should be kept at or above 63°C.
Keeping food for too long:
Bacteria requires time in which to multiply and so the longer food is kept the greater the possibility that food will be become unacceptable. Generally, high-risk foods, stored at the correct temperature, should not be kept for any longer than 3 days but many foods will have instructions to use them more quickly than this on the label. The long dates on vacuum packaged foods only apply to the unopened food and once the seal is broken the food should be treated as fresh.
Fresh food may show poor microbiological results due to cross contamination which can arise from a number of sources such as poor personal hygiene, equipment which is not bacteriologically clean (i.e. has not been sanitised) or from raw foods. You should check that staff are washing their hands properly and regularly. Ensure that surfaces and equipment are effectively cleaned with suitable products and that tea towels and dishcloths are clean. No raw food should come into contact with cooked food on work surfaces or in refrigerators.