Does Covid-19 spell the death of the carvery?

It’s Sunday, I sit here having just had a traditional Sunday roast. An afternoon in a slightly cold garden gave me quite the appetite and there is nothing better than a roast to fill that hunger!

One thing the current pandemic has done has heightened the public’s awareness of hygiene. I listened to a discussion on the radio last week that talked about what might change once life goes back to normal – one of the main topics of discussion was the carvery. It is unlikely that the general public will come out of lockdown without some kind of change in their behaviour. Although, exact changes are unknown there are already questions being raised around the impact on behaviour long term.

Most traditional pubs will have some kind of roast option on a Sunday. Broadly, there are two ways of a pub serving a roast. One is a standard roast – pick your meat when ordering – the rest is left up to the chef and it arrives plated up in front of you. The risks of the standard roast prepared and plated by a chef are pretty much the same as any other meal served in a pub or restaurant. The other option, is the carvery option. The meat is carved in front of you and you use the tongs to grab some vegetables and Yorkshire puddings, along with a whole load of gravy. The perception of the risk of the carvery is significantly different.

Generally people are happy to trust a limited number of other people to maintain appropriate controls – such as trusting supermarket workers in following good hygiene practices. However, trusting other members of the public is another story. This is where the potential downfall of the carvery could come.

Food safety & carveries

The fact that carveries serve a large number of people the same food and there are shared utensils to pick some of the food increases the risk of contamination. Where things go wrong with carveries, they tend to go wrong on a pretty large scale. There have been a number of food poisoning outbreaks associated with carveries that have meant that over 100 people have fallen ill with food poisoning.

Despite the large scale of these outbreaks most are actually attributed to the food. It appears that food poisoning outbreaks in carveries are usually attributed to a bacteria called Clostridium perfringens. This bacteria usually strikes when there is poor temperature control of food. Clostridium perfringens actually forms spores which can help the bacteria survive even if it is reheated later.

I recall visiting a pub after an outbreak of Clostridium perfringens and there are plenty of opportunities for this bacteria if the team are not strict enough with temperature control. Whether it is holding gravy on the hob for extended periods – allowing for cold spots to form, cooling joints of meat inappropriately, or hot holding joints of meat below temperature. In the particular case I investigated it appeared that the gravy was the culprit – meat juices were added to the gravy and it was left on the hob for hours, without proper temperature checks.

After a bit of research I can only seem to find that most cases reported on relate to food being the issue, not the public. The only incident I can find where another member of the public was the cause of the food poisoning, was a member of the public with Norovirus vomiting in the pub.

Are carveries really more risky?

This does raise the question as to whether carveries do actually pose an increased risk. Although shared utensils are a potential opportunity for contamination, does it pose much of a significant risk? Research carried out back in 2015 on utensils identified they could carry bacteria from 1 item of food to another. Although this was a different context, seeing if utensils such as knives being used to cut a contaminated item would then carry this to other food items. Given that carvery utensils are only used for ready-to-eat foods this study isn’t relevant for our carvery scenario.

In any other restaurant or pub there are lots of items touched by others – the door handles, menus, condiments… the list goes on. In fact a study of menus in Turkey identified that a significant proportion of them were dirty. Does that mean some shared utensils really add much to the mix? Unlikely.

Although the reality is that the future of carveries will not be decided by the actual risks posed – it will be decided by the perception of the risks posed. Will Covid-19 spell the death of the carvery? Time will tell.

What can I do to minimise any risk?

If you visit a carvery when restaurants are permitted to re-open there are a number of actions you can take to minimise any risk – however small.

These include:

  • Washing your hands after getting your food and before eating;
  • Make sure food being served is hot – all hot lights should be working, it is usually a good sign to see a temperature probe near the carvery deck;
  • If utensils have fallen so the handle is in the food – highlight this to the team, the food should be replaced.

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