The South African food industry takes food safety seriously, but the recent implementation of load shedding by the national electricity supplier, Eskom, raises concerns about the impact of the rolling blackouts on food safety for consumers.
Load shedding has led to concerns about the effectiveness of refrigeration and other cooling devices in food storage and preparation areas.
Under the banner of the UN's World Health Organisation (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food organisations all over the world observed World Food Safety Day on June 7 under its current theme: "Food standards save lives", which emphasises the importance of established food safety practices and standards and ensures food quality and safety.
According to the United Nations, eating contaminated food causes over 600 million hospitalisations and almost 420 000 deaths each year. Closer to home, lengthy power outages cause tons of food to spoil every day, severely disrupting households and companies that deal with perishable foods.
The operations director of Servest Catering's business unit, Bradley Hall, commented on what the supposed "new norm" means for the food industry, saying that "these prolonged power outages undermine the capacity of these enterprises to maintain the highest standards of food safety".
He highlighted that load shedding has emerged as a major threat to food safety in South Africa, and it significantly undermines the integrity of the cold chain.
Further, prolonged power outages disrupt the optimal storage conditions in refrigerators, potentially jeopardising the safety of the stored food.
Inconsistent temperature control creates an environment conducive to the growth of dangerous bacteria and pathogens, posing a significant risk of food-borne illnesses for people consuming such food.
Hall contends that implementing a business continuity plan aligned to ISO 22 000 accreditation to enforce precise Food Safety Management System (FSMS) protocols, such as Good Manufacturing Practices, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, can ensure the highest level of hygiene and safety at every step of the food storage and transportation process, even during load shedding.
Tips to follow to maintain food safety
Here are some tips from Hall “to mitigate potential risks of food contamination posed by temperature changes”.
Catering businesses and restaurant owners will benefit from these:
Do not buy in bulk
Instead of bulk storage, procure minimum stock that is adequate for planned menus spanning two to three days.
It is crucial to closely monitor temperatures throughout the entire process, from receiving ingredients to the completion of serving, while maintaining detailed records of temperature monitoring.
Strictly adhere to safety practices in the handling of food products within the industry – do not take shortcuts.
All food handlers should comply with food safety regulations during the processes of handling, storage and transportation while maintaining proper personal hygiene.
“A compromise in food safety has the potential to pose a severe threat to the health of the people and survival of a business,” says Hall.
According to him, if food has been deemed unsafe due to proven safety issues, it should be considered unfit for consumption and discarded.
Product recalls resulting from defects not only increase costs for companies but also have the potential to cost lives, impact their bottom lines and even lead to business closures.
He points out that if a food safety issue becomes widespread, companies may be held liable for medical expenses or face lawsuits for damages.
On the consumer side, practising proper food safety measures can help reduce expensive health-care costs, while consuming unsanitary food may result in hospitalisation and contribute to the overall burden on health-care expenses.
Hall asserts that businesses and people need to be resourceful if they want to maintain food safety and reduce waste, given the fact that load shedding is not likely to end very soon.
The highest standards for food safety may still be maintained despite the difficulties brought on by load shedding, therefore, businesses and individuals shouldn't ignore this.
“Load shedding requires all of us to learn new ways of doing things and un-learn past habits that are no longer applicable during this period of inconsistent energy supply.
“We just have to adapt and become more stringent in how we handle food during this time,” he said.