Handling, maintaining and preparing food in commercial kitchens can expose employees and customers to many health risks if not correctly handled. All food establishments must comply with the standards and practices set out by the Food Safety Act 1990 to ensure the food it produces is not harmful to a person’s health.
According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), 2.4 million cases of foodborne illnesses occur annually in the UK. It further estimates that 37% of all foodborne norovirus stems from eating out in restaurants and hospitality venues, with takeaways estimated to cause 26% of all foodborne illnesses.
The Food Safety Act 1990 highlights the framework that all food-based organisations must comply with to protect consumers and employees. The legislation includes ensuring the safety of the food they provide and applies to all organisations involved in:
- Preparing food.
- Labelling food.
- Transporting food.
- Storing food.
- Selling food.
A standard method of food storage and preservation is freezing. This involves lowering the temperature to inhibit microorganism growth, but it must be done safely to minimise the risk of illness and contamination.
Ensure your employees know the risks of freezing food with our Food Safety Online Course, including how to recognisefood safety hazards and the importance offood temperature control.
What are the benefits of freezing?
Freezing is a convenient and cost-effective food storage option for many food businesses.
The benefits of freezing food include:
- inhibiting bacteria growth, increasing the preservation of food
- convenient for establishments with plenty of stock
- reduces fresh food waste, saving money
- extends shelf life without losing quality
While freezing is considered safe for most food, it’s essential to maintain the correct food hygiene, storage and preparation practices once food items are defrosted and cooked/served as part of basic frozen food safety. Undercooking or handling food incorrectly can increase the chance of contamination and illness.
Freezing perishable foods – How long does frozen food last?
Most food can be frozen, with few exceptions.
Food items with high-water content, such as cucumber and lettuce, can’t be frozen without spoiling. You should avoid freezing soft cheeses, egg-based sauces and mayonnaise as they’re likely to split and curdle. Eggs can be frozen, though you have to do so without the shell.
Many other foods are suitable for frozen but are best used within specific time frames. As long as they’re correctly packaged and stored within a freezer of optimal and constant temperature, here are some of the recommended time frames for keeping items in the freezer:
- Uncooked meat (steaks, chops): 4 – 12 months, but best to use within 3 − 6 months to prevent taste impairment.
- Uncooked mince meat: 3 – 4 months.
- Cooked meat: 2 − 3 months.
- Uncooked poultry: 9 – 12 months.
- Cooked poultry: 4 months.
- Raw and cooked fish: 2 − 4 months.
- Milk: Up to 1 month.
- Cheese: Up to 4 months.
- Butter: Up to 3 months.
- Bread: Up to 3 months.
- Fruit: Up to 6 months.
- Vegetables: Up to 12 months.
The time frames are a guideline. While food can remain frozen past these periods, the quality of the defrosted product may be significantly reduced.
Thoroughly defrosting food is crucial for ensuring frozen food safety.
Food, especially poultry, should be defrosted and thawed fully before cooking to ensure an even cook throughout to kill off bacteria. Do not refreeze once thawed and consume within 24 hours as the FSA recommends.
The best and safest way to defrost food is in the fridge slowly, depending on the food. You can thaw some foods in a microwave using the defrost cycle or by placing the food in cold water, as long as the defrosted food is cooked or served immediately to reduce the chance of bacteria growth. Immediate cooking is crucial with microwave thawing as the food may become warm enough during defrosting for bacteria to multiply.
Smaller items such as fruit and vegetables can defrost within a few hours or overnight, but larger foods such as whole chickens or turkeys may take longer – roughly 24 hours per every 2-2.5kg. You can speed up the process by placing the item in a leak-proof bag and then in a bowl of cold water.
When defrosting meat and poultry, make sure it sits on a plate on the bottom shelf of the fridge, covered and away from any other items. Any liquid from the thawing meat should be prevented from spreading and contaminating other items and surfaces.
Some foods are suitable to cook directly from frozen without defrosting, including:
- Red meat and small pieces of chicken
It’s important to make sure that food is heated and cooked thoroughly when cooking from frozen to ensure all bacteria are killed. Frozen fruit and vegetables can be added straight to dishes without defrosting.
Top frozen food safety tips
What temperature should a freezer be?
The temperature of your freezer should be a minimum of -18°C to prevent the growth of bacteria. It’s important to ensure the temperature remains constant as inconsistencies may allow bacteria to start growing. Frozen food stored at -18°C will enable the food to last longer without losing quality.
Cool food down before freezing
When freezing leftovers and homemade dishes, do so as soon as possible. You must ensure the food is cool before placing it in the freezer to prevent raising the freezer’s temperature.
Keep food wrapped
Place food in air-tight containers or freezer bags to avoid drying out from the cold air. Avoid glass containers as these can potentially break due to the extreme temperatures. Keeping food wrapped helps prevent air from reaching the product and causing freezer burn (dehydration).
Keep all frozen food labelled with what it is and the date it was added to the freezer. Labelling will reduce the risk of serving the wrong food, which may concern food safety, i.e. serving meat instead of a vegetarian option. Dating the food will allow it to be used within the recommended periods to maintain its quality.
Don’t ignore use-by dates
To ensure the quality of the food lasts while freezing, don’t ignore the use-by dates. Freezing the food before use-by dates means that the food’s quality is maintained and has less risk of bacteria already developing. The earlier you freeze it, the higher the quality when defrosted.
Maintain your freezer
Regularly clean the freezer to prevent cross-contamination between products. Doing so can help maintain the freezer’s efficiency and ensure it’s working effectively to maintain frozen food safety. It may also free up more space by defrosting large areas of the ice.