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Companies wake up to food handling risk

News Release
For immediate release

27 June 2006
Companies wake up to food handling risk

New Zealand is quick to boast of its world-beating position in everything from enterprise to extreme sports, but there's one area where we'd rather not talk about our performance at all. New Zealand holds the unenviable position of food-poisoning capital of the developed world, with rates so far in excess of comparable countries that experts are at a loss to explain it.

Auckland medical officer of health, Greg Simmons, says the cost of this level of foodborne illness to the New Zealand economy is enormous, with some $60m in medical costs and lost productivity annually.

Several hundred people were taken ill as a result of suspected norovirus infection after eating at Eden Park during the second All Blacks test match against the Irish earlier this month, and well over 15,000 of us fell victim to Campylobacteriosis – a nasty bout of nausea and diarrhoea accompanied by muscle pain, fever and headache – alone in the last 12 months, over three times the infection rate in Australia and the United States.

Such risks are not lost on employers. Many large companies have on-site cafeterias and restaurants for their staff and are aware of the impact an outbreak of foodborne illness would have on their productivity and reputation, not to mention their employees' health.

This awareness has been one of the main drivers behind the growing tendency for companies to outsource their catering function to specialist food service operators, harnessing the twin benefits of such companies' specialist knowledge and expertise along with the transfer of all food-related risk out of the contracting organisation.

Farmers Trading Company has two cafeteria facilities catering to over 500 people at its head office and distribution function. Both are operated by Eurest, a division of international food service company Compass Group.

Farmers' national administration manager, Les Tom, says, "Our primary concern is for quality. We want to be confident that our staff are being offered high quality food prepared and served by qualified people. Food safety is obviously a very important part of that focus on quality."

Food itself doesn't cause illness; bacteria and other pathogens do, and these organisms can be present in raw foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, fish and shellfish, which is why thorough cooking is so important. But another important source of infection is healthy food handlers who may contaminate food with bacteria common in the human body through poor hygiene, or else diseased food handlers who may contaminate food with less common pathogens.

Whatever the source of the bacteria, mishandling can allow bacteria to survive, reproduce, or in some cases form a toxin in food or the human body. In short, food handling errors are almost always directly associated with the "dinner plate" microbial contamination that is a prerequisite for foodborne illness.

Eurest's quality and risk manager, Amandeep Kaur, says that this is an area in which a specialist food service company can be invaluable.

"Our procedures for receiving, handling, preparing and serving food are all documented and auditable. We carry out a full on-site risk assessment at clients' premises before starting any contract to ensure that they understand the importance of restricting access to food preparation sites, for example, as well as things like the type of floor surface in the kitchen area and how easy it is to clean.

Kaur claims that a clear focus on risk management and training staff in food safety procedures has been central to Compass' continued growth.

But improved risk management is not the only benefit to employers. Les Tom says there are less tangible benefits from ensuring Farmers' staff eat well, including good morale and a sense of working for an employer who is concerned for their welfare.

"But there are cost savings too," he says. "Having specialists take care of the food service means a huge saving in management time and cost to us. We don't need to staff the facilities or put a senior manager in place to run everything from procurement to HR to facilities management.

"Food service is not our core business or specialism, but with Eurest running it we can depend on it working with us barely having to think about it."


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