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From Fridge to Fingers – cross contamination in early years

Hygiene is vital

5 Cross-contamination safety tips for Early Years providers.

One of the main causes of food related illness is cross contamination, as you will have learned during your Food Hygiene Certificate training. It is when microorganisms and other sources of contamination such as allergens, are unintentionally transferred from one food source to another. One of the reasons cross contamination is so common is that it happens very easily and often there are little or no visible signs it has occurred.

As a carer it is your duty to ensure that any food you serve to the children in your charge is safe to eat. You certainly wouldn’t want to be responsible for making a child ill. Allergen contamination in particular can result in some very serious consequences and will escalate from ingesting the contaminated food to a very poorly child with some serious symptoms, very quickly.

Cross contamination can be dangerous

Early Years food hygiene training

Take a tip from the professionals

Few early years and childcare environments employ professional kitchen staff. Mostly this is because it is simply not financially viable to do so. However, the techniques employed to combat cross contamination in high volume kitchens can still be utilised in domestic or smaller kitchens. Introducing some simple changes could reduce risk. Here are five easy to implement and monitor methods of control.

  • Know your safe storage. A working kitchen will have very clear storage rules for walk in refrigeration and other food storage areas. This can be scaled down to domestic equipment very easily. The obvious one is dripping meat and contact contamination where bacteria rich juices spread contamination to other foods. Fresh meat goes in the bottom of the fridge and it cannot be mixed with other food stuffs at all.
  • If in doubt – wash the food (with one exception). When you buy a pack of pre-packed crispy, healthy looking green leaves or see that ripe, juicy strawberry fresh from the garden, they may not be as good for as they look. Raw, leafy green vegetables are a major cause of food poisoning and just because it looks clean doesn’t mean it is. Unless food is marked ‘ready to eat’ assume it isn’t and wash it. You will see many packs of something as harmless seeming as lettuce clearly say ‘wash before use’ on the pack. It’s there for a reason. A fresh, straight from the garden, strawberry is tempting but you know those splattered little presents birds leave you on your car? Well, do you think the birds and other animals have specifically avoided that particular berry in case you ate it?
    • The exception to this is chicken which should not be washed. It is going to be thoroughly cooked before consumption so washing it is just potentially splashing the campylobacter (the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK) around the kitchen.
  • Check the ingredients and lunchboxes. Allergens are clearly marked so remember to check your ingredients carefully. Pre-made sauces and baked goods often contain allergens and it is very easy to overlook them. Similarly make sure you know what the children have in their lunch boxes. A 3 year old with a nut allergy will not think twice about sharing the food of the child next to them. Allergic reactions require exposure to the allergen, remove the potential exposure and you have resolved the problem.
  • Clean and clean again. There is a simple rule to be followed here. If in any doubt clean it before you use it. Cross contamination from utensils, work surfaces and so on can be avoided if you are in the habit of cleaning as needed.
  • Have separate boards and utensils. This is a simple, easy to maintain, rule that will dramatically reduce the potential for cross contamination. For example, a series of coloured boards, red for raw meat and so on, works wonders because it simply removes the opportunity for contamination.

The real trick to cross contamination safety is to apply the basic rules to your environment and scale them to fit as needed. Be wary of old wives’ tales such as ‘the 5-second rule’ or ‘a bit of dirt does you good’. Sorry but bacteria cannot count, and the bit of dirt could contain e-coli. It is really important that you apply your training and let proven scientific fact decide on food safety practice.

Advice from the Food Standards Agency