A Historical Look at Food Safety Measures in Restaurants

Jamie Norman
11 Jan 2022
5 min read

One of the most important things when it comes to eating out is knowing that the food we eat is safe. Throughout history, from ages long ago until now, people have always tried to find ways to make sure that their meals don’t cause harm. Long before we had shiny kitchen equipment and deep scientific knowledge, our ancestors had their own clever tricks to keep their meals tasty and, more importantly, safe to eat.

The very essence of food safety is all about ensuring that what's on our plate is okay to eat. Think about it. Long, long ago, while people might not have known about tiny germs, they sure knew that some foods could make them feel ill if not stored or cooked right. As time went on, more people started living in big groups. With this, more places to eat, like early versions of cafes and restaurants, popped up. This made it even more important to have some kind of rules and methods to keep the food they served fresh and safe.

Early Ways of Keeping Food Safe

Way back in time, our ancestors might not have had fridges or ovens like we do, but they certainly had brains full of bright ideas! In places like ancient Egypt, people found smart ways to store their food. They built massive granaries, which were essentially large storage spaces, ensuring their grains were kept cool and dry. This stopped the grains from getting spoiled and mouldy. But that wasn’t all. They even used natural items like honey, which is a sweet, sticky liquid, and vinegar, which is sour, to make their food last longer without going bad.

Now, if we look at the Romans, they had their own set of cool tricks. They found out that smoking their meats and fish, apart from giving them a lovely taste, helped them stay good for a longer time. But the Romans didn’t stop there. They also understood that it wasn’t just about how you keep or cook the food. It was equally important to make sure that the food you buy from markets is of good quality to begin with. To ensure this, they had special market officers. Think of them as the ancient version of today’s food health inspectors. These officers kept a close watch on market foods, making sure they were fresh and good to eat.

Meanwhile, far over in the East, in countries like China, another food safety method was becoming popular: fermentation. This is when they let food sit for a certain period until it changes in a way that it can be kept longer without getting spoiled. Foods like kimchi in Korea, which is spicy fermented cabbage, and various pickled foods across Asia, were the result of this method.

As towns and cities grew and became busier, there emerged special places where you could just walk in and buy food that was already cooked and ready to eat. In ancient Rome, these places were called 'thermopolia'. They were similar to today’s food counters or takeaways. Because they didn’t have modern equipment like refrigerators to keep food cool or advanced cleaning methods, they had to be super careful about how they stored and served their food. This was to make sure that anyone eating from their counters would go home with a happy tummy and not a sick one.

The Birth of Modern Restaurants

As centuries rolled by, and societies underwent big changes, our ways of preparing, selling, and consuming food evolved as well. The concept of a "restaurant" as we know it began to take shape, especially in places like Europe. As cities grew busier and more populated, the demand for places where people could sit down and have a meal outside of their homes increased. These weren’t just places to eat; they became places to socialise, discuss business, or even celebrate special occasions.

In places like France in the 18th century, the first recognisable restaurants began to emerge. They were places where you could pick from a menu, rather than just eat whatever was being served that day. With this new format, came new challenges. Because there were more choices for dishes, there was also a need to store different ingredients safely. And as restaurants tried to outdo each other by offering exotic and rare dishes, they also had to figure out how to safely bring and store foods from faraway places.

Then came the big game changer: the invention of canning. In the 19th century, people figured out how to store food in sealed cans. This meant that food could be kept for much, much longer without going bad. Restaurants could now have a wider variety of ingredients on hand, leading to bigger and more diverse menus. But, as always, with new methods came new safety challenges. They had to make sure these cans were sealed properly to avoid any spoilage.

The 20th Century and Food Safety Innovations

The 20th century was an exciting time for food and restaurants. With so many inventions and discoveries happening, the way we approached food safety saw many twists and turns. One of the biggest stars of this era? The refrigerator. Before this, people used iceboxes, which was basically a box with a big chunk of ice to keep things cool. But refrigerators, especially the big commercial ones for restaurants, were a game-changer. They allowed restaurants to store food at the right temperatures, greatly reducing the chances of food going bad.

Another big change was how we looked at germs and cleanliness. Thanks to scientists like Louis Pasteur, we started understanding more about bacteria and how they affected our food. This led to the pasteurisation process, where liquids like milk are heated and then quickly cooled to kill harmful bacteria. Restaurants and food producers began adopting these scientific methods to ensure that the food remained safe to consume.

But it wasn’t just about keeping food fresh. It was also about serving it safely. As restaurants became more common, so did reports of food-related illnesses. This made people realise that they needed stricter rules. In many countries, health departments were set up to inspect restaurants. These inspectors would visit restaurants to check if they were clean, if they stored food properly, and if they cooked food to the right temperatures.

Training became important too. In the past, if you could cook, you could work in a restaurant. But now, chefs and restaurant workers began to get formal training, not just in cooking, but also in how to handle food safely.

Food Safety in the Digital Age

During the 21st century, as I observe, traditional methods of ensuring food safety are suddenly merging with tech solutions. This fusion is leading to a more streamlined, accurate, and efficient approach. A standout innovation is the new digital temperature monitoring systems. No longer do staff have to manually check the cold storages or ovens. Sensors now automatically track and record temperatures and, if there's a deviation from the ideal range, they send alerts to the staff. Because of this, perishable goods are always in optimal conditions, which greatly reduces the risk of them spoiling.

Inventory management is also undergoing transformation. Thanks to software solutions, like Hopsy, restaurants are now equipped to monitor the shelf life of their ingredients. They receive alerts as expiry dates approach and can even predict when they need to reorder certain items. This not only reduces wastage but also ensures that outdated ingredients never find their way to a diner's plate.

Additionally, the digital age introduces us to data analytics. Restaurants, using this tool, can analyse customer feedback, track sales data, and even detect patterns in food-related illnesses. This means restaurants can quickly identify areas where they need to improve their food safety practices. But it's not all about reacting to problems – with the capabilities of predictive analytics, we can now foresee potential issues and take steps to prevent them before they even happen.

AI and Modern Food Safety

With artificial intelligence and machine learning, there is an unparalleled ability to process vast amounts of data quickly, these technologies are promising to revolutionise the industry.

Take, for example, AI-driven surveillance cameras in kitchens. These aren’t just for security; they monitor the preparation process, ensuring that chefs and kitchen staff adhere to safety protocols, from washing their hands frequently to avoiding cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods. Domino's have been infamous for this.

Robotic kitchen assistants are another fascinating development. Equipped with sensors and guided by AI, these robots can precisely measure ingredients, monitor cooking times and temperatures, and even alert human staff if there’s a deviation from set safety standards.

The integration of blockchain technology in the food supply chain is also worth noting. By providing a transparent and tamper-proof record of a product’s journey from farm to plate, it ensures the authenticity and safety of ingredients. If an outbreak or contamination occurs, pinpointing the source becomes almost instantaneous, allowing for swift corrective measures.

Moreover, augmented reality is beginning to find its place in training restaurant staff. Instead of traditional training sessions, employees can wear AR glasses that guide them through food preparation processes, highlighting safety protocols along the way.

Concluding Thoughts

As we reflect upon the trajectory of food safety in hospitality, it's evident that our commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of diners remains unwavering, even as the tools at our disposal evolve. The combination of traditional practices with cutting-edge technology signifies a bright future, where risks are minimised and efficiency is maximised. It's inspiring to witness how innovations like AI, AR, and blockchain are not just add-ons, but integral components in redefining food safety standards.

As we continue to push the boundaries of what's possible, the ultimate winner remains the consumer, who can confidently expect higher levels of safety and excellence in their dining experiences. Looking ahead, one can only be filled with optimism and anticipation for the innovations yet to come, and the subsequent enhancements they will bring to the world of food safety in hospitality.

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