Maintaining the Food Cold Chain
Under “cold chain” is understood the whole distribution line of chilled or frozen food from raw material to final consumption. There should be no weak link in the chain and the motto at every link should be “Don’t cool – keep cool”. Once a prescribed low temperature has been reached, this should be maintained as far as possible, with minimum temperature fluctuations.
The main purpose of chilling or freezing food, as far as the consumer is concerned, is to prolong shelf life and to maintain the fresh appearance of the food. Apart from the aesthetical, there is another very important reason: at higher temperatures there is a rapid growth of bacteria, which can result in food poisoning if the particular food is eaten. Chilling or freezing will not kill bacteria, only retard their growth. Everyone is aware of the unpleasant symptoms of food poisoning, but it is important to remember that food poisoning can be fatal, especially in the case of “risk groups”: babies and infants under 2 years, pregnant women, the elderly and those already suffering from illness or convalescents.
It appears that food poisoning is on the increase but the vast majority of cases can be prevented and the consumer has a vital role to play in preventing it in the home. Many cases of food poisoning also occur when food is prepared and served to a large number of people – functions, picnic and sports events.
Food manufacturers and retailers are more aware than ever of the need to handle food in a safe and hygienic manner. Appropriate legislation has contributed to this. But after food is bought by caterers and consumers, it is their responsibility to handle it safely up to the point of eating. It is of little use if manufacturers and retailers appoint qualified food scientists and microbiologists and run training programmes for their staff if food is abused after selling.
Consumers are generally concerned about and also aware of food poisoning but don’t always know the basic principles to be applied to prevent it. Maintaining the cold chain is one very important aspect.
The following guidelines are given and when applied, should help in the prevention of food poisoning and maintaining the cold chain:
In The Store
The consumer must feel comfortable with the retail outlet, where he/she buys food. “Care” and “responsibility” in the store must be evident.
Check whether fridges and freezers are equipped with thermometers.
Different types of products should be stored in different sections of cabinets.
Check meat for discolouration and excessive drip.
When a product is being promoted in the store, it should be kept in the cabinet and not taken out to make it more visible.
Frozen packs should be undamaged.
Check for signs of freeze/thaw, for example, water marks or stains on the boxes. Do not buy if boxes or packets are soft and the product has thawed.
Are chilled foods marked “use-by” or “best before”? Don’t use food beyond this date. If there is a possibility that food will not be used before this date, rather freeze the product if marked “suitable for home freezing”.
Check that store freezers are not overloaded, that is, packed above the air grilles.
When shopping, leave the selection of frozen and chilled foods to the last..
Tell the store manager if you are not satisfied with the conditions in his store.
Get the food home as soon as possible and put it into the refrigerator. Ideally frozen or chilled food should be transported in insulated containers or, even better, cool boxes. Don’t leave in the boot or hatch for a long time.
Don’t let raw food come into contact with cooked or ready-to-eat foods during transportation to the home, for example, packing fresh fruit and vegetables into the same container as meat fish and chicken.
Store uncooked foods on the lower shelf of your refrigerator.
Cover all foods at all times.
Check your refrigerator. Temperature should be below 5ºC.
Follow thawing and cooking instructions on frozen foods. Frozen foods must be totally thawed (preferably in the refrigerator) before cooking.
Do not re-freeze foods once thawed unless they have been thoroughly cooked. Treat thawed food as chilled food.
Avoid any cross contamination: food to food, working surfaces to food and utensils to food.
Observe personal hygiene at all times while handling food.
Reviewed for FACS by NSt (2016)