How food standards save lives

World Food Safety Day on 7 June 2023 draws attention to food standards. Foodborne diseases affect 1 in 10 people worldwide each year, and food standards help us to ensure what we eat is safe.

The guidelines, standards and regulations which apply to the industrial preparation of food all have one objective ─ to protect the consumer from harm.

Harm from contaminants on the surfaces of, or dissolving out of, the food contact materials; harm from micro-organisms inside processing machinery not being destroyed by the cleaning processes; harm from allergens being transferred from one food product to the next batch processed by the same plant. And when, according to the World Health Organisation, one in ten people fall ill each year from eating contaminated food and 420,000 people die each year as a result, what could be more important?


There are three main pieces of legislation which apply to the preparation of foods and beverages, and these (or their predecessors) have been in force for well over 30 years now.  Here we refer to those applicable in Europe and the UK, but many other countries have very similar regulations because they make Food Safety sense.

Materials and Articles in Contact with Food

The first is the Materials and Articles in Contact with Food legislation EC 1935/2004. It stipulates that materials which may come into contact with food "must not transfer their constituents to that food in quantities which could endanger human health, bring about an unacceptable change in the composition of the food, or cause a deterioration in its organoleptic characteristics" (its smell or taste).

In terms of 'endangering human health' the maximum amounts of each constituent element which a material is allowed to release into food have been set by the World Health Organisation according to the accepted 'severity of consequence' of their release: so, for instance, the limit for iron is 40 mg/kg of food but for lead the limit is only 0,004 mg/kg of food.

It is reassuring that whenever stainless steels are tested for constituent release to the procedures laid down by the European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines and Healthcare, it is almost always found that the amounts of iron, chromium, nickel, etc. released are below the Levels of Detection of even today's sensitive test equipment.

Machinery Directive

The second regulation is the Machinery Directive, which requires food-processing equipment to be designed to be hygienic. But hygienic design is not an end in itself ─ it is a means to achieving the cleanliness of food-processing equipment easily, reliably and consistently. Equipment must be 'designed and constructed in such a way as to avoid any risk of infection, sickness or contagion'. And 'hygienic' does not just mean that the equipment is always clean and shiny on the outside but that it is designed to resist the build-up of process soils and biofilms on the inside and is easy to clean. 

Internally, it must be smooth and have neither ridges nor crevices which could harbour organic materials. Bacteria are small ─ typically only about one-fiftieth of the diameter of a human hair ─ and they can hide even in scratches on the internal surfaces of food-processing equipment. From there, they can be difficult to scavenge even with a hot, concentrated, turbulent detergent. And this means that precision engineering is needed to combat the advance of these tiny, but harmful, micro-organisms, something to which stainless steels are ideally suited.

This requirement for hygiene applies not only to internal surfaces but also to the joints between component parts.  If possible, bolting two plates or sections together is to be avoided.  Bolt heads, seats and threads can all offer sanctuary to micro-organisms unless the bolts are capped and a synthetic seal is fitted under the head.  Flange joints in which a synthetic seal such as an O-ring is either recessed or protrudes into the product flow will trap micro-organisms ─ the components need to be designed and dimensioned such that, at the correct operating temperature, the surface of the seal is just level with the bores of the pipes.

The Machinery Directive also states that it must be possible for all liquids (including disinfecting and rinsing fluids) to be completely discharged from the machinery.  If the outlet from a tank is above the level of its base such that it cannot drain completely, what is left at the bottom will mix in with the next batch of product.

European regulations specifically require that the manufacturers, importers or distributors of food contact materials and articles, and those who place them in contact with food prior to sale ― the food business operators ─ together "pursue a high level of protection of human life and health".

Food Hygiene Regulations

The final piece of legislation is the Food Hygiene Regulations. This requires the food business operator to maintain his equipment in good order. It says that it is he (or she) who must put in place "all the measures and conditions necessary to control hazards and to ensure fitness for human consumption of a foodstuff". And it also says that the responsibility for ensuring the cleanliness of the food-processing equipment lies with he (or she) who puts the food into contact with that equipment. So it places the ultimate responsibility for food safety on the food business operator.

Of course, the food business operator may not himself have designed the piece of machinery he is about to purchase, and this is why the new Issue 9 of the British Retail Consortium's Brand Reputation Compliance Global Standards auditing guideline requires food business operators to establish and train multi-disciplinary teams to research what their production processes require in order to maximise food safety, to prepare detailed technical specifications for equipment to be purchased, to audit their equipment supplier and to quality control the goods he delivers.

So improving food safety and meeting food contact materials and hygienic design legislation requires a joint effort by the equipment specifier, the equipment fabricator and the food business operator, preferably drawing upon all the specialist knowledge of the stainless steel industry and the Nickel Institute on how best to manipulate and prepare stainless steel equipment for a long, economic life of reliable, safe service.

Following the introduction of new test criteria in Europe, an independent report commissioned by Team Stainless, has reconfirmed the safety of using stainless steel in food preparation. Download the study report.