Food sampling

What is a food sample?

To check that food and drink intended for human consumption is safe, food samples are purchased anonymously or taken with the owners consent by an authorised officer.

These samples will be analysed by the Microbiology Department of Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham or the Public Analyst in Stafford to see whether they comply with the Guidelines for Assessing the Microbiological Safety of Ready-to-Eat Foods Placed on the Market.

Why are food samples taken?

We sample to:

  • identify potential problems with specific types of food or types of food businesses as part of national or regional studies;
  • investigate food poisoning outbreaks and food contamination incidents
  • investigate complaints;
  • assess food suspected of being sub-standard;
  • reassure the public about food safety;
  • deliver a more effective food inspection service.

When will a food sample be taken?

Food samples are usually taken in the following situations:

  • Food Standards Agency co-ordinated sampling programmes.
  • LACORS (Local Authority Co-ordinating body on Regulatory Services) / HPA (Health Protection Agency) co-ordinated sampling programmes.
  • Staffordshire Food Sampling Group surveys.
  • Home or Originating Authority responsibilities.
  • As part of routine food hygiene inspections to aid assessment of food safety management.
  • Investigation of complaints

What do the results mean?

When food samples are examined the results are interpreted as one of the four grades of microbiological quality and these are detailed below:

Satisfactory

The term applied to food which is of good microbiological quality and therefore the numbers of bacteria found were relatively low or not detected in the food.

Borderline

The term applied to foods that reflect a borderline limit of microbiological quality and therefore the numbers of bacteria detected were higher than expected. A review of food handling procedures is necessary to ensure that safe food is produced.

Unsatisfactory

The term applied to foods with relatively high numbers of bacteria and indicates a problem with food hygiene and handling procedures. A review of working procedures must be conducted and Environmental Health Officers may take additional food samples together with further inspection of the premises to determine the possible cause of the contamination.

Follow these simple rules to help you to control the quality and safety of your food

  • Identify all steps in your activities which are critical to food safety
  • Put adequate safety controls in place
  • Adequately train all staff in food hygiene
  • Wash hands thoroughly before handling food, and again between handling raw and cooked foods and after visiting the toilet
  • Clean all equipment, utensils and preparation surfaces thoroughly
  • Keep cooked and raw foods separate during preparation and storage
  • Wash salad, vegetables and fruit thoroughly if they are to be eaten raw
  • Use food within its use-by date and promptly use foods you have already prepared
  • Keep food covered
  • Never use raw shell eggs in food which is not going to be cooked eg mayonnaise, tiramisu
  • Keep animals out of food preparation areas
  • Use a thermometer to monitor temperatures and disinfect the temperature probe before (and after) each time that it is used
  • Cook food thoroughly (centre temperature more than 70°C for 2 minutes) and serve. If hot-holding keep above 63°C
  • Re-heat food to at least 75°C
  • Ensure any food requiring refrigeration is kept below 8°C and not left at room temperature for long periods
  • When preparing food in advance, ensure it is cooked thoroughly, cooled rapidly and stored in the fridge
  • Avoid using left-overs