News

The Plastic ‘Elephant in the Restaurant ‘Room’

THE PLASTIC ‘ELEPHANT’ IN THE RESTAURANT ‘ROOM’

Plastic is in the news at the moment. It has occurred to us that drowning our planet in plastic, intoxicating the fish that feed us, the air that sustains us, the rivers that nourish us, the seas that protect us is a horribly bad idea. This conversation has been a long time coming, it is hardly news that plastic is integral to much of industry and more specifically the hospitality sector where plastic has brought great efficiencies but also phenomenal and catastrophic waste; much of which cannot be recycled ever. I came across a great phrase on a shopping bag recently which for the first time made me really think about waste ‘we don’t throw stuff away, we throw it somewhere’.

This brings us back to plastics in the restaurant industry. The two plastic items which have been singled out and publicly shamed are single use straws

 and single use take away cups.

 It will be a positive step to reduce the use of both.

However, what about the use of plastic boards for the preparation of food and the use of plastic gloves to handle food? The industry is awash with colour coded plastic boards none of which are necessary. Countless studies have been undertaken regarding the use of plastic versus timber boards and it has been illustrated again and again that timber is a better alternative to plastic. Anyone who cooks will know that plastic boards are very hard on knives and blunt the edges much faster than timber, that plastic globules come off the board and escape into food, and that plastic boards have to be replaced very regularly. Those who have been ‘persuaded’ to use plastic by their food safety advisors might do well to study the advice given by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland on their own website where it states

‘Q. Can I use timber (hardwood) chopping boards or must I use plastic boards? 

Wooden chopping boards can be used for food preparation once they are kept in a clean and hygienic condition. Generally, all surfaces which come in contact with food must be of sound condition and be easy to clean and where necessary disinfect. They must be made of smooth, washable, corrosion resistant and non-toxic material. Chopping boards must be constructed in a way that will minimize the risk of contamination. They must be kept in a good state of repair. 

Wooden boards should be made of hardwood and preferably be of the end-grain type. Separate chopping boards must be used for raw and ready to eat foods to minimize the risk of cross contamination. If feasible, separate boards preferably colour coded should be used for raw meat/poultry; raw fish and seafood; raw unwashed vegetables salad and fruit; dairy / bakery products and cooked meats. 

Whether wooden or plastic chopping boards are used it is essential that they are in good condition. Deeply scored chopping boards are more difficult to clean and can harbour harmful microorganisms which can contaminate food. They should be re-planed or if this is not an option they should be thrown away and replaced by new boards’. 

 

This then is fairly clear advice that it is perfectly safe and legally acceptable to use timber boards in food service. So, why then is there a ‘push’ by food safety officials for plastic. Is this not an environmental catastrophe to match or exceed the use of straws and take away cups?

If timber boards had ever been dangerous to use for the preparation of raw foods, timber butcher blocks would have been thrown on the scrapheap of life. However, every butchers shop in the country has a timber block in use every day for raw meat of every kind. Timber boards can also be engraved so that the uses of the board is clear.

It is true that single use plastic is bonkers and must be tackled by us who choose not to keep buying stuff wrapped in it, and the manufacturers who keep sending us virtually everything we eat shrink wrapped.

What then of the insane  use of plastic gloves at every deli counter, sandwich stall and food outlet which is customer facing?

When did we feel that using our ‘clean’ hands to handle food was dangerous. As any hospital nurse or doctor will confirm, it is our hands that transmit germs. However, what is the first thing that people stop doing when given permission to use plastic gloves? They stop washing their hands! It would seem that some plastic gloves are imbued with magical properties that protect them from catching germs from food, then implements, then crockery, then money. So, let’s look to the experts again. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland gives this sage advice.

  1. Is it a legal requirement to use plastic gloves when handling raw or cooked food?No. It is not a legal requirement to wear plastic gloves when handling either raw or cooked food. Proper and frequent hand washing is critical to ensure safe food. Plastic gloves can be used but it is important to remember that gloves can be a source of contamination if certain rules are not followed:
  • Hands must be clean before putting on gloves
  • Gloves must be changed regularly and properly disposed of
  • If gloves are used for certain duties such as cleaning, handling raw food, waste or money, they must always be disposed of before starting another activity

NOTE: A food handler should question if there is any benefit in using disposable gloves for the particular activity before putting gloves on’. 

So, why do individual Food Safety officers strongly ‘encourage’ industry to use plastic gloves? Those of us in the industry will know of course that the lack of consistency across the country regarding Food Safety Requirements is shocking; however we all have access to their website where the advice is clear.

It is up to us now to take the lead on this. The next time you are being ‘advised’ to use only plastic boards and plastic gloves – the law is on your side- and we can all make a difference to the future of our little put upon planet by saying no to unnecessary use of plastic.

Your thoughts welcome.