handle foods safely

How To Handle Foods Safely For Food Safety

Reading Time: 6 minutes

How food is handled during storage and preparation is the fifth and final pillar of food safety . Food Handling carries the greatest risk when dealing with cross-contamination.

This is where, colour-coding, food preparation separation and negligence come into play.


Cutting boards and knives are items that are usually coded, to separate different food groups from being exposed to bacteria that can cause harm.

Standard practice dictates a colour-coding system that identifies the preparation of the different food groups from each other, as well as mining the exposure of raw and ready-to-eat foods.

Such that:

  • Red is for raw meats
  • Yellow for raw chicken
  • Blue for raw fish
  • Green for fruits and vegetables
  • Brown for cooked meats
  • White for breads and dairies

Cleaning equipment is also coded to distinguish areas of high to low risk.

cutting board colour chart

Food Preparation

Preparing raw meats in a separate area from foods that will not be cooked (RTE foods) will eliminate any possibility of cross-contamination.

This means that raw meat should never be prepared next to salads, and should ideally have completely separate areas, or at the very least, the tables and equipment should be cleaned and sanitised between use.

Notice that all of the previous four food safety pillars relate to food preparation; cleaning and sanitising, personal hygiene and hand washing, food storage and temperature control.

Receiving of Foods

Receiving of foods is also an important step in eliminating food poisoning, by ensuring first that your raw materials, are of a good quality and from a reputable supplier that has food safety at the top of mind. Ensuring quality of products used in your kitchen requires application of most of the food safety pillars, and should be checked against a monitoring tool that guarantees the required quality.

What to look for when receiving supplier goods?

  • Check expiry dates and batch codes
  • Measure the temperature of foods to ensure the cold-chain is maintained.
  • Check packaging is in a good condition
  • Evaluate the condition and cleanliness of the delivery vehicle

Checking and recording the above will help you ensure that products are within a suitable expiry date, no temperature abuse has taken place, no damage and therefore exposure of your foods to the open environment has occurred, and lastly, that no outside contamination will enter your kitchen.

Note, that not evaluating your raw materials allows risk that you cannot control, meaning that should your supplier not be reputable, you have taken on his/her risk, in addition to your own. So, when there is a food poisoning complaint, they will be looking to you and not your supplier when it comes to legal prosecution.

So, have a checklist in place, and immediate access to a thermometer to do a delivery check of your suppliers.

Note, that dry goods should also undergo a rigorous check for condition and cleanliness.

Checkout our article on how to safely receive foods.

There are 3 steps in the receiving procedure

  • Receiving

This step can be defined as the physical action of taking possession of delivered foods in order to inspect the products according to the kitchen’s requirements.

  • Inspection

The inspection process is defined as the process that determines the suitability of the delivered goods.

  • Acceptance

This the process of confirming that the products are of suitable quality and have met the food safety requirements. This step also includes the storage of these products in the kitchen.

Cooling Procedures

Hot foods often need to be cooled and refrigerated before service occurs. This is one of the methods that allows for customers to receive their meals timeously. In other words, pre-preparation. This is most especially the case for stews and large batch meals.

In these cases blast chillers  are the best option for rapid cooling of cooked foods.

However, in some cases, the kitchen doesn’t have access to blast chillers.

How do you cool down foods safety?

As discussed previously, foods should never be in the danger zone, therefore when cooling foods, the time spent in this zone must be managed and minimised.  This means that foods can be cooled by being left out unrefrigerated and uncovered, but only for the initial heat to dissipate. Meaning for the steam to run off.

  • This can usually take about 10 minutes, but no longer than 20 minutes.
  • Food must not cool below 45º Celsius (113º Fahrenheit). Once foods have cooled sufficiently, the foods must then be placed in a fridge away from any possible contamination, once cooled, can then be covered.
  • I would recommend that a designated area in a walk-in cold room be made available for such cooling procedures.
  • Foods from a hot buffet must be in a fridge within 30 minutes of close of the buffet, in which case a slightly cooler temperature is allowed.

As you can see, blast chillers eliminate all the stress around cooling foods, however the process can be managed, once a protocol has been set up.

Defrosting Procedures

The defrosting of foods is also a misunderstood procedure, that can also be avoided by pre-planning meals and menus. In these cases, defrosting of frozen foods should take place in a fridge for a day or two. This ensures even defrosting and overall quality of the food items. Cold water defrosting should only take place as a last resort.

Refrigeration defrosting:

  • Place meat/poultry in a sealed well labelled container
  • Place these containers on a separate lowest shelf
  • The label should indicate the expected time to defrost
  • 24hrs for 500 g ground beef or boneless chicken breasts
  • An additional 24 hours per 2 kg for larger meats
  • The shelf-life would be 1 – 2 days after defrosting
  • ground beef, stewing meats, poultry and seafood
  • 2 – 5 days for red meat cuts such as steaks

Cold water defrosting

  • Packaging should be well sealed and fully immersed in the cold water
  • Defrosting should take place in a dedicated basin, which should be cleaned and sanitised before and after defrosting
  • 1 hour for small pack of meats, poultry and seafood
  • Larger packs would take up to 2 – 3 hours to fully defrost
  • Cook immediately after defrosting

Defrosting don’ts

  • Defrosting foods must not rise above 5 º Celsius (41º Fahrenheit).
  • Don’t leave foods out at ambient temperature to defrost overnight
  • Don’t re-freeze defrosted foods
  • Don’t defrost in warm/hot water
  • Don’t place defrosting foods above any other foods in the fridges

Defrosting foods in hot water does not evenly defrost foods throughout and often only the surface of the food is no longer frozen.

This creates differences in temperatures which creates an ideal environment for bacteria to survive, allowing the entire product to defrost evenly, prevents the above concerns, and will also ensure that the quality is maintained.

What To Do With Leftovers

Not cooking food to a safe temperature and then leaving food out after cooking at ambient temperature are some of the main causes of food poisoning. Safe handling of leftovers is critical in  reducing this risk.

Bacteria grow rapidly between 20° – 45° C (68° – 113° F). After food is safely cooked, hot food must be kept hot at 60° C (140° F) or warmer to prevent bacterial growth. Within 2 hours of cooking food or after it is removed from an appliance keeping it warm, leftovers must be refrigerated after an initial cool down period up to a minimum of 45°C (113°C).

There is always a risk of food being left out and you should consider throwing away all perishable foods that have been left in room temperature for more than 2 hours.

Cover or wrap leftovers in airtight packaging, or store them in sealable containers. This practice will help keep bacteria out, retain moisture, and prevent leftovers from picking up odours from other food in the refrigerator. Immediately refrigerate or freeze the wrapped leftovers for rapid cooling.

It is safe to reheat frozen leftovers without thawing, either in a saucepan or microwave (in the case of a soup or stew) or in the oven or microwave (for example, casseroles and combination meals). Reheating will take longer than if the food is thawed first, but it is safe to do when time is short. Although we have found that microwave defrosting affects the quality of foods.

When reheating leftovers, be sure they reach 75°C (165° F) as measured with a food thermometer. Reheat sauces, soups and gravies by bringing them to a rolling boil. Cover leftovers to reheat. This retains moisture and ensures that food will heat all the way through.

When reheating in the microwave, cover and rotate the food for even heating. Arrange food items evenly in a covered microwave safe glass or ceramic dish, and add some liquid if needed.

Be sure the covering is microwave safe, and vent the lid or wrap to let the steam escape. The moist heat that is created will help destroy harmful bacteria and will ensure uniform cooking.

Microwaves have cold spots, so be sure to check the temperature of the food in several places with a food thermometer and allow a resting time before checking the internal temperature of the food with a food thermometer.

Cooking continues for a longer time in dense foods such as a whole chicken or roasts than in less dense foods like breads, small vegetables and fruits.

Sometimes there are leftover “leftovers.” It is safe to refreeze any food remaining after reheating previously frozen leftovers to the safe temperature of 75°C (165° F), but this really is the limit. Don’t do a triple leftover situation. The second leftover assumes that you followed all the correct temperature procedures. Remember there are bacteria that are heat-stable such as S.aureus that release a toxin through heating that makes you sick.

If a large container of leftovers was frozen and only a portion of it is needed, it is safe to thaw the leftovers in the refrigerator, remove the needed portion and refreeze the remainder of the thawed leftovers without reheating it.

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