Many people working in the food industry don’t fully understand the risks involved in food service or believe that the business owner or manager is ultimately responsible for ensuring that food safety requirements are met. Fortunately for customers, this is simply not the case.
Food business owners/operators and employees are responsible for the conditions and safety under which food is held, prepared and served to the public. This means that the responsibility for safe food belongs to everyone in the business, from the owner to the dishwasher.
As a Food Handler, you are responsible for maintaining high standards of personal hygiene and acting in accordance with food safety regulations and the business's Food Safety Plan to prevent cross-contamination and protect customers from health risks like food poisoning and food allergies. It's the law — but it's also in your best interest, and in the best interest of the food business you work for.
A thriving business means more customers through the door, which means more shifts for you, bigger tips and more credibility on your resume (future employers are more likely to hire an employee with experience at a well-respected food establishment). Your behaviour has a direct impact on your employer, on the health and safety of your customers and on your income.
It makes sense to follow food safety best practices; this includes being aware of how you act in the workplace and changing behaviours and habits that may introduce food safety risks and put off customers.
The top 10 things you should never do as a food handler
1. Don't cough or sneeze into food or your hands
This should be pretty obvious. We understand that sometimes you just can't control it, but if you absolutely must cough or sneeze, make sure that you:
- throw out any food that was 'in the line of fire'
- try to do so into a bent elbow, well away from food
- wash your hands afterwards using the 6-step method
Try to remove yourself from the line of sight of customers — if you can make it to the back-of-house before coughing or sneezing, do so.
2. Don't smoke
We're not going to lecture you about why you should quit smoking (it's bad for you, it stains your teeth, it's expensive) — what you do with your free time is up to you, but you should not smoke when you're working with other people's food. If you absolutely must smoke during your shift, do so well away from the premises and wash your hands thoroughly before resuming your work duties.
3. Don't wipe away sweat using your hand or apron
We understand that commercial kitchens can get unbearably hot, especially during a busy service. You probably think that wiping sweat away from your face is better than having it drip into the food you're preparing, but using your hand or apron doesn't stop dangerous bacteria from getting into the food. Instead, use a cloth that won't be used for food handling.
4. Don't scratch your body, face or clothing
We know it can be hard to fight the urge to scratch an itch, but consider how that looks to the customer. Even if you weren't soiling your clean hands with bacteria from other parts of your body (which you are), you're putting a bad taste in your customer's mouth.
5. Don't put your fingers in your mouth
Under no circumstances should you be putting your fingers (or fingernails) in or near your mouth during your food handling shift, especially if you are in full view of customers. If you do this accidentally, wash your hands thoroughly straight away.
6. Take care when tasting food
When we say “take care when tasting food”, we mean:
- don't taste food with your fingers
- don't return utensils that were used to taste food back to the food afterwards
If you need to taste food — and you will, tasting is an important part of cooking — ladle the food into a small dish first and then remove the dish and spoon from the food preparation area so that you don't accidentally use it again.
Even if it is unlikely that customers will see you handling food improperly, it is likely that you'll transfer potentially dangerous bacteria to their food. Angry people who suspect your food business gave them food poisoning won't hesitate to leave you a scathing online review, which can damage the business's reputation. As we've mentioned, your income is dependent on the success of the food business you work in.
7. Don't touch your face
Don't touch any part of your face when you're working with food. This includes your mouth, nose, eyes and ears. If it would put you off your food to see somebody else do it, don't do it.
8. Don't touch jewellery
Wearing jewellery is highly discouraged in food businesses and it's not because your boss just wants to control you. Jewellery can harbour dangerous bacteria and can also be a choking hazard if it falls into food. If you were categorizing jewellery in terms of food safety hazards, it would be both physical and biological (ok, now we're just showing off).
Medical alert bracelets/necklaces are the only acceptable forms of jewellery to be worn when working with food. Check your local regulations to find out if you're allowed to wear your wedding ring when working with food.
9. Don't pick your nose
You should not be picking your nose at any time, but you most definitely must not pick your nose when you're working with food. Harmful bacteria, including Staphylococcus, live inside your nostrils. Furthermore, if you're looking for a quick way to have a customer walk out and never return, this is the way to do it.
10. Don't touch ready-to-eat food
Don't touch ready-to-eat food with your bare hands. Use tongs or an appropriate serving utensil when putting or arranging food on your customer's plate. It's tempting to reach out and quickly adjust the top of that sandwich, but you can introduce harmful microorganisms to a perfectly good sandwich. It's not worth the risk.
And that's not all...
We've given you the top 10 list of bad Food Handler behaviours but there are many more bad habits that can cause your customers to crinkle their noses.
You've probably seen a few of these in your own food business, or you may be guilty of doing them yourself. We urge you to reconsider:
- using the same cloth for the duration of your shift without reapplying sanitizer
- using a cloth intended for wiping down tables to clean up a spill on the floor
- gripping used glassware with your fingers on the inside of the glass
- touching the draft beer faucet/spout to the glass while pouring a pint
- using glassware to scoop ice
- pulling glassware out of a commercial dishwasher before it has gone through a full rinse cycle
- storing packaged food items in your apron (e.g. single serving milk/creamer, peanut butter, jam)
If you're a trained and certified Food Handler, you probably know exactly why these behaviours can introduce food safety risks that can harm — in some cases, seriously harm — a customer. Perhaps you know but you still do them because you're trying to save yourself a fraction of time.
Whatever your reasons, these are behaviours that can contaminate food with disease-causing pathogens (e.g. bacteria, viruses), choking hazards (e.g. broken glass) and/or chemicals. It is not difficult for customers to notice and understand that these actions put them at risk and they are unlikely to return for a 'second helping' of questionable food.
If you are a food business owner or manager, it's important that you provide food safety training and education to everyone that handles food in your business. It only takes one Food Handler making one small mistake to ruin your reputation and the trust you've worked hard to build with your customers.
The Canadian Institute of Food Safety (CIFS) provides quality food safety education and resources to thousands of food businesses across Canada. We're passionate about helping to reduce food-borne illness and committed to tackling other food safety and security issues.