Food service providers are responsible for ensuring that consumers remain protected from the risk of food poisoning which may have many serious consequences.
However, on an offshore establishment, food safety is the responsibility of everyone, from transporters to cafeteria managers and eventually the cleaners.
Many people rightly assume that food safety basics are common sense. However, there are several important principles that many forget related to personal and kitchen hygiene to prevent contamination by moulds, bacteria, or even vermin.
What is food safety?
Before we describe food safety, let’s touch on food hygiene. Food hygiene is a set of measures and conditions necessary to ensure the optimal safety of food from production to human consumption.
Food safety therefore refers to efficient and effective measures taken to protect food consumers from any kind of hazard, harm or illness. Unsafe food is one that has:
- Been contaminated, exposed to dirt and germs
- Gone bad and is rotten
- Contains toxic physical, chemical or biological substances.
So, food safety processes principally focus on enforcing the standardised preparation, handling, transportation and storage of food.
The four main elements that form the foundation of effective food safety are:
Why is food safety critical for offshore catering companies?
Because consuming unsafe food can result in sickness and can even cause death at an offshore establishment, food safety is critical to:
- Protect offshore workers from the hazards of food-borne illnesses.
- Protect the offshore company and stakeholders from expensive penalties and legal action.
- Protect sensitive workers from fatal allergic reactions.
What causes poor food safety when shipping offshore?
- Unhygenic food transportations conditions like poor temperature or ventilation control within reefer containers while shipping may lead to food spoilage or growth of bacteria.
- Microbial contamination of food by bacteria and mould that cause food poisoning and food-borne diseases. Unfortunately, bacteria can infect the intestines, causing inflammation and difficulty in absorbing nutrients, leading to diarrhoea.
- Physical contamination of food by foreign bodies like insects that render food unfit for consumption, or unsafe.
- Chemical contamination of food, for example, pesticides, metals and residues from cleaning, can taint food and cause food poisoning. In fact, some bacteria produce chemicals in foods (toxins) that are poisonous to the digestive system, and can lead to nausea, vomiting, kidney failure, and even death.
- Water on an offshore installation for drinking, cooking, laundry, personal hygiene, and other purposes can pose food safety challenges.
- Unpredictable temperatures at offshore establishments can affect food differently and pose a biological hazard.
- Poor cleanliness at an offshore site.
- Poor waste disposal.
- Poor storage of utensils and food equipment.
Consequences of poor food hygiene
Poor food hygiene almost always results in food poisoning. Unfortunately, it can take hours to develop food poisoning, depending on the trigger or cause. Bacteria is usually the main cause since it is common, and can be found in soil, animals, and even clothes.
In a kitchen, bacteria usually comes from vegetables and raw meat. Sometimes this bacterium moves from raw ingredients to cooked food via cross-contamination.
Overall, the outcome of poor food hygiene is usually food poisoning manifesting as a mild illness that can normally be treated at home, with symptoms like vomiting and diarrhoea.
However, in extreme cases, severe food poisoning requires crucial medical attention.
Food safety certifications for offshore catering companies
Offshore catering companies need to be certified to ensure that they adhere appropriately to best food safety and management practices to avoid food-borne illnesses or food poisoning.
For example, standards dictated by management systems like Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP).
This is because an offshore installation’s set-up is usually unique, and food poisoning could infect a large number of personnel, leading to a localised epidemic. The certifications necessary seek to ensure that offshore catering companies strictly maintain consistent practices like:
- Periodic pest control in kitchens and mess halls.
- Regular and frequent water
- Raw food sampling and testing.
- Regular health checks of all workers by onboard medical staff.
- Periodic hygiene inspections of workers, kitchens, and mess halls.
- Temperature control for food items, as per storage requirements.
- Consistent disinfection protocols for the kitchens and mess halls.
How to prevent poor food safety during offshore shipping?
Proper handling of food involves multiple activities. For example:
- Disinfecting and wiping down surfaces after handling any raw food.
- Washing all equipment in hot and soapy water before reuse.
- Washing your hands regularly.
- Changing your gloves routinely, especially after handling raw foods.
The main goal of food handling should be to ensure the separation of foods to prevent cross-contamination. Unfortunately, cross-contamination occurs when harmful germs are spread between foods and equipment. To avoid this, do not store raw meats and poultry products near fresh produce, for example.
Another key element of optimal food safety is storage. For example, perishable foodstuffs should never be left out of the fridge in temperatures of 4-60°C for more than 2 hours.
After 2 hours, these foodstuffs should be discarded as they are unsafe and cannot be reheated or refrigerated. Eating such food can indeed lead to food poisoning. The bottom line is always to store raw or cooked foods in airtight containers at the correct temperatures.
Furthermore, always chill and refrigerate all temperature-sensitive food items promptly. Additionally, do not overfill your refrigerator so that air circulates to maintain the correct internal temperature.
To ensure that temperature is consistent and favour, utilise an external thermometer with an internal one, as the external thermometer will enable your staff to make quick checks to ensure food safety (without opening the fridge).
Personal hygiene is critical when working with food and encompasses clothing and habits, like handwashing, using protective clothing, covering up hair, avoiding jewellery and smoking etc.
Unfortunately, when catering staff doesn’t follow the best personal hygiene practices, they can easily contaminate food with hazards via direct contact or even cross-contamination.
Ensuring that offshore catering staff maintains unsoiled clothes and shoes is one key step for food safety as contaminants can live in fabrics. So, an organised catering company always has staff with clean uniforms, water-resistant, slip-resistant shoes that are regularly washed and disinfected.
Food temperature is a critical component of a food safety strategy. Ensure that food is cooked to the right temperature (held at temperatures above 63°C) to prevent the multiplication of bacteria.
Furthermore, when reheating food, ensure to reheat it above 82°C. Temperatures any lower than 82°C can cause bacteria to multiply and cause illness in consumers.
Chilling food helps stop harmful bacteria from growing. For example, avoid keeping salads and desserts standing around at room temperature. Furthermore, ensure to keep chilled food out of the refrigerator for the shortest time possible during preparation.
How you prepare food really does matter. For example, it is imperative to prepare vegetables and raw meats on separate boards. Furthermore, since caters typically prepare food ahead of time, when chilling and storing that food, the correct temperatures have to be maintained, and storage methods.
Additionally, avoid preparing foods so far ahead of time that they risk spoilage. Spoiled food should be discarded immediately, even if it looks and smells fine. Lastly, ensure that food allergens are handled and managed effectively to prevent any cross-contact.
Unwell workers compromise food safety. Caterers are legally responsible for ensuring that their staff doesn’t handle food if they have a bacterial or viral infection. This vigilance should be taken up a notch if the workers present any signs of vomiting and diarrhoea, or have infected wounds, skin infections or sores.
The role of DNV-certified offshore reefer containers in maintaining food quality while shipping
DNV-certified offshore reefer containers can help maintain food temperatures between -35°C and +35°C regardless of outside conditions. They achieve this by channelling air underneath the food storage through T-shaped decking, specifically designed to ensure consistent airflow.
This T-Floor essentially distributes air set at the designated temperature around the cargo for effective temperature management.
Additionally, offshore reefer containers provide automated temperature controls and tracking to ensure the food safety of sensitive ingredients like raw meats, seafood, and vegetables.
This helps ensure optimal food safety along the supply chain, which helps mitigate the outbreak of food poisoning to ensure biohazard health and safety on offshore installations.
Food safety can be a matter of life and death. This is because keeping food safe for humans at offshore installations can avoid a disastrous food poisoning mini-epidemic.
Food poisoning though usually mild can result in nausea, vomiting, dizziness, stomach pain and diarrhoea, rendering an entire workforce incapacitated. Thus, leading to losses of productivity, or worse, a fatal public health nightmare.
Generally, the symptoms and severity of food poisoning can vary, depending on the bacteria or virus that has contaminated the food. Regardless, prevention is always better than cure.
In all honestly, total prevention of food poisoning is impossible, but effective food hygiene and optimal food safety can mitigate most cases at offshore installations.
In conclusion, there are six tenets to breaking the chain of food poisoning at offshore establishments:
- Safe food shipping using certified reefer containers.
- Safe food preparation.
- Proper food storage.
- Food safety certification and employment of standardised management practices.
- Safe food handling.
- Personal hygiene.
A graduate (Business) from KDU, Jason Tan, is the current Business Director (Sales) for MGS Icestorm and has been associated with the company for the past 10 years.
With over 13 years in the shipping industry, he has had a significant contribution to Malaysia’s oil and gas industry in the engine and boat supply sector.
His expertise includes managing offshore catering business, offshore reefer containers, AI technology, offshore gas tanks, A60 pressurized cabins, etc. His contributions have helped establish MGS, in partnership (joint venture) with Thermo King and Honeywell to produce state of art Offshore Reefer Container products.