Trading Standards Institute Advice

Physical contamination of food

This leaflet is for all food businesses including those involved in catering, food retail, food production and food preparation, whether working at business premises or from home.

What is meant by physical contamination?
Food can be physically contaminated at any stage of production if an object becomes mixed with the food. Some of these items could injure someone or may also carry potentially harmful bacteria.

If a customer finds something in their food it will rightly concern them. It may cause injury and can be very upsetting, and would also make your business look uncaring and unprofessional. 

There have been occasions where a disgruntled member of staff has deliberately put something in food to cause the business to lose its reputation.

Food ingredients
Sometimes the ingredients themselves can cause the contamination. Unintended and unwanted ingredients can remain in food after it has been prepared.

A customer may understand why pips or stalks are in food that contains grapes or other fruit, and may even understand why there are bones in filleted meat and fish or eggshell in an omelette. However, if a customer finds soil and grit in a salad they will probably make a complaint immediately.

To avoid this, your staff must be careful when they prepare food. They should prepare ingredients carefully, and wash salad, fruit and vegetables thoroughly to remove hazards and unwanted objects.

Food safety management system
You must take all reasonable precautions to prevent your food being physically contaminated. To reduce the chance of this happening, as part of food safety management you need to consider every part of how you produce and prepare food. You should do this to identify how your food may be contaminated and put controls in place to reduce the risk of contamination.

How your food can get contaminated
The following examples show how and where your food could be contaminated from, and gives examples of what has contaminated food in the past. Included are some controls you can put in place to reduce the risk of this happening to your customers and to protect your business.

The following items could contaminate your food:

  • plaster
  • flakes of paint
  • pieces of brick
  • broken glass
  • broken tiles
  • screw fixings
  • covering (sheathing) from electricity cable

Keep your premises well maintained, train your staff to report faults and make sure you repair faults immediately. 

You should stop food production while you carry out repairs, and you should take all food and food containers away from the area. 

You should thoroughly clean and disinfect the area before you start producing food again.

The following items could contaminate your food:

  • nuts and bolts
  • screws
  • pieces of metal

By cleaning your equipment regularly you can also keep a check on its condition. Have a maintenance programme for your equipment to ensure it stays in good repair and running condition. You should tell your staff to report any problems or broken equipment and you should organise frequent maintenance.

You should not carry out repairs in areas where you are preparing food. If you do, it increases the risk of contamination from machine parts and fixings and from service engineers working in food areas who may not know about the risks of food contamination.

The following items could contaminate your food:

  • pieces of wood
  • glass
  • staples
  • string
  • elastic bands
  • polythene
  • cardboard

You should consider the type of packaging your suppliers use - for example, if your supplier uses metal staples to seal cases, there is risk that the staples might fall into the case and end up in your food.

Where appropriate, you should take food out of its delivery packaging and put it into food-safe containers before you take it into your food preparation area. 

You should get rid of any packaging immediately to lower the risk of contamination.

Food supplied in glass increases the chances of broken glass shattering onto an area where food is being produced. 

You can reduce the risk of broken glass contaminating your food by putting a no-glass or low-glass policy in place and ask your staff to drink from plastic or paper beakers.

The following items could contaminate your food:

  • hair
  • combs
  • nail varnish
  • fingernails
  • nail varnish
  • sweet papers and wrappings
  • buttons
  • chewing gum
  • pens and pen tops
  • earrings
  • various other items of jewellery

To protect your food from the risk of contamination, your food handlers should wear appropriate protective clothes. These work clothes should not have pockets as they may contain items that could fall into the food. 

A person may lose 50 to 75 hairs a day and, unless they take precautions, some of these hairs may get into food. Clean hair falls out less than greasy hair so staff should have good personal hygiene. Your staff should tie long hair back at all times and wear a hairnet or hat.

Your staff should also cover any cuts, scratches or grazes with waterproof plasters to stop bacteria getting into the food. Plasters should be blue so they can be easily seen in food if they fall off. 

Your staff should not wear jewellery as this could cause contamination (a plain wedding ring is usually acceptable).

Your staff should not wear nail varnish as this can chip and get into food, and they should keep their fingernails short to avoid broken nails falling into food.

They should not wear false fingernails as these can also break off and end up in food.

The following are some of the animals which can contaminate your food:

  • rodents (mice, rats and so on)
  • rodent hairs and droppings
  • insects
  • caterpillars
  • slugs

Your building should be built and maintained so as to be able to stop pests getting in.

You should have a good cleaning system in place in food storage, preparation and service areas as well as in waste-storage areas to deter pests from coming in.

You should store all your food off the floor in rodent-proof containers with lids.

You should keep your storage areas clean and tidy and check them regularly so you can spot any pests early. 

You should put all your rubbish and food waste outside and store in covered waste bins.

Check your suppliers to make sure they keep to a similar level of food safety and hygiene as you do - for example, if they leave an early morning delivery outside of your building it may be exposed to more than just physical contamination. This is not good enough and you should not accept this.

Discuss this situation with your supplier. They should be prepared to deliver the food after you arrive on site. If this is not possible, a metal lidded container should be provided for them to place the food in to. Be prepared to reject the delivery if it does not meet the standards that you expect.

More information
You will find further guidance in our other leaflets on this website. Information can also be found on the Food Standards Agency website.

Alternatively, contact your local environmental health service for advice.

Please note
This leaflet is not an authoritative interpretation of the law and is intended only for guidance.

© 2018 itsa Ltd.