Factory Rats

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A new Hampshire camp was close while it was being checked for the cause of salmonella food poisoning. Children fell sick after eating a pudding that was contaminated with pathogenic salmonella bacteria. After all the negative publicity about salmonella in the media over the past couple of weeks, another salmonella outbreak was the last thing this well renowned camp needed.

Puddings and other deserts are quite common vectors of salmonella poisoning for several reasons. I would like to go over some of these reasons in this article to give you insight into the world of puddings and deserts.

Last courses are very often very minimally cooked. Sometimes they incorporate meringue which is basically just egg white beaten with sugar. Often last courses are not cooked to temperatures that exceed the boiling point of milk which is around 80 degrees Celsius. Some strains of resistant and virulent bacteria are very capable of withstanding such temperatures.

Camps are places which function only at certain times of the year and infrastructure of camp kitchens is not very sophisticated. Fridges may not function at required temperatures and food stores may be open to many different persons from within the camp. In addition, the staff which are hired by camps to do kitchen work might not be state of the art professionals, particularly in matters of food hygiene. If that were not enough and to cut staffing costs still further camp cooks are requested by management to work with casual workers who may have little if not no prior knowledge about the workings of a large kitchen.

Chefs are known to like to mix many ingredients by hand, particularly when using corn starch. Corn starch likes to coagulate when it comes into contact with liquid and many chefs like to feel that the consistency of a mixture is smooth. If the chef or one of his workers has not washed his hands properly after going to the toilet or after handling meat or fish (particularly chicken or turkey), bacteria will infest the desert mixture.

Another possibility for salmonella contamination is if the chef or one of his helpers failed to notice that eggs, milk of both used in the mixture for a pudding were not fit to be used. Often casual staff do not know the signs of contaminated milk or eggs.

Yet another possibility is that the chef made a pudding mixture early in the morning before he started to prepare meats and other foods that may contaminate a pudding mixture but failed to insure that it was refrigerated. On discovering the mistake he may have decided to take the chance that the mixture was not contaminated. These things do happen in many, many kitchens.

Another scenario could have been that staff cut corners and failed to wash cooking trays properly after a previous usage. These dirty dishes may have been exposed to cockroaches rats,cats or racoons and thus contained with salmonella. The final possibility that I would like to mention is that one or more of the ingredients other than eggs and milk that went into the pudding may have been infected with salmonella. After all, salmonella has been turning up all over the place recently. Why not on ingredients such as dried fruit? In the worst scenario several of these factors may have occurred simultaneously. If this was the case, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

Extra care must be taken when preparing food for the young, the elderly, pregnant women and the infirmed. These people are the most vulnerable and as fate would have it these groups are exposed to the highest percentage of cases of food contamination. As you can see from the breakdown I have given you, more than one factor may be to blame. Trouble starts when the approach is as fault. The only way to minimise food poisoning risk is meticulous attention to detail and correct practice at all levels of an operation like a camp.

animal-655308_1280I can remember when I was about fourteen years old I went on a school trip to see a steel mill in Sheffield England. Three things impressed me on that trip. These three things were the noise, the heat and the rats. I could hardly believe my eyes. Not a bite of food in sight and yet rats were scurrying around not twenty yards away from where we were walking.


I can remember wondering why rats would bother about a steel mill. There was not a morsel of food in sight. It was not until fifteen years later that I would find the answer to that question.  Yet the fact remains that rats do infest many types of factories.

If the common denominator for rats establishing presence in factories and mills wasn’t food then what was it? In 1991 I began a course of practical Engineering in agriculture. It was during this course that I found out why rats infested many types of industrial plants. The reason is copper. Mice have trouble getting enough copper to be able to operate their immune systems and the missing link that enables them to do so is copper.

All industrial operations run on electricity and electricity runs through copper wires. Rats peel away the plastic coating on electric cables and lick the wire to get more copper and they do this obcessively. People who have worked in factories will know that from time to time they will hear an almighty bang. More often than not this bang is caused by a rat short circuting an electric cable. Needless to say that the rat is dead.

Why an I telling you this? Because one needs to understand that if rats had no reason to infest a food factory, they would still be there because of the copper wiring.

Food factories can be categorized into two main categories. Ones that process raw agricultural produce, plant or animal and ones that process food that has already been processed for industrial use.  In the first example produce is brought from the farm or co-operative sorting plant to the factory. Here the produce is tipped, washed, sorted and peeled or alternatively slaughtered, skinned, gutted and cleaned in the case of most animal produce.

In both cases the amount of dirt and contamination that is around at this intitial stage of the game is quite unbelievable and it is at this stage of the process that most rats are found. Only an ongoing, organized and regular cleaning regime can reduce the presence of rats and mice.

Once the produce has finished this init ial stage it is then passed to the next stage. Whatever the stage the amount of dirt should be very minimal compared to that of the first stage. As the product progresses towards packing the work environment should be almost sterile in comparison.

There are systems that analyze the risks and points at which one can reduce risks to food products. One such system is called HACCP. HACCP means hazard analysis and critical control points. In this system each hazard is defined and critical control points at which the level of the hazard can be reduced, eliminated or controlled are also defined and adopted.

There may well be one sequence of actions to control vermin and an entirely differnt sequence for the control of bacteria, for instance. It is the job of management to ensure that workerd are familiar with all the various sequences and to make sure that they are adopted and applied.

When this system is implemented in all of the factories various departments threats such as salmonella poisoning from rats is greatly reduced. Trouble can start when priorities and sequences are changed for one reason or another. The enemy of the HACCP system is cut backs. Cut backs in staff or cut backs in spending. Right now we are in the midst of a recession. In recession we can expect cut backs on more or less everything.

In plants where produce is immediately pumped through stainless steel pipes the opportunity for vermin to contaminate the produce is greatly lowered. Businesses such as bakeries may enocounter problems with rats at the end of the process rather than at the initial stages. For some reason mice  rats and cats do not seem to like white flour and prefer to wait until it has been transformed into bread products. Here pest control is particularly important because there is no process between contamination and the consumer that will kill the bacteria that have been transferred through cross contamination.  Nothing should be left unattended at this stage. Nothing should be but directly on the floor and nothingshould be put into plastic trays that have not been washed thoroughly in a proper industrial manner. To fail to be attentive to this points can cause indirect contamination via contact with vermin excretions.

The golden rule is to leave noting to chance. Always pre suppose that anything that can happen in theory will happen in practice.

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