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  • Nick Lander
Written by
  • Nick Lander
3 Jul 2002

Expertly picking up a piece of tuna sashimi with his chopsticks, the dapper Peter Christopher exclaimed, 'I am delighted that we don't receive more complaints of food poisoning from tuna. The conditions are certainly ripe. Tuna can harbour a poison, it's very popular and a lot is eaten raw. I think it's a tribute to how carefully most chefs now source their produce that raw tuna is invariably safe to eat.'

If there is one person with his finger on what is safe or not to eat in British restaurants today it is Christopher, managing director of Food Alert, which inspects kitchens, trains staff in the increasingly complex world of food hygiene and consequently, and most importantly, protects anyone who eats out from the possibility of food poisoning. From The Ivy to Wiltons, any Bank or Harvey Nichols restaurant or as far as west as Rick Stein's Cornish restaurant empire, Christopher and his team constitute your food policemen.

Food Alert began in 1990 when Christopher, who had worked as an Environmental Health Officer for 12 years in London's East End, spotted this niche at the top end of the market. The subsequent recession did not help as restaurateurs immediately reacted by cutting training but otherwise his timing was immaculate. 'This was the era of salmonella and Edwina Currie, the beginnings of BSE and when restaurateurs were finally made aware of their responsibilities via the 1990 Food Act and subsequent legislation which substantially increased penalties for any negligence on their part. The eating-out boom which followed has meant that we have grown by 20 per cent a year ever since,'he told me with some pride.

Food Alert provides two distinct functions, the first preventative, the second investigative. The former ranges from inspecting kitchen layouts before the restaurant has been built to prevent potential cross contamination, for example, to holding training courses on food safety, to inspecting busy restaurant kitchens on a regular basis to ensure standards are not slipping. This programme, pertinently titled Peace of Mind, offers, Christopher believes, the food preparation insurance that businesses willingly pay for damage from fire, water or anything that may otherwise damage their professional reputation, cause harm or result in loss of earnings. And, at an annual premium of around £2000 for a busy restaurant, this peace of mind does not seem expensive.

And Christopher is adamant that he is no killjoy, out to spoil others' enjoyment. 'I love food and wine and one of the most exciting aspects of my job is working with chefs to minimise any possible risks rather than simply taking a potentially risky dish off their menu. Steak tartare, raw minced fillet of beef topped with a raw egg is a case in point. Nothing could appear more dangerous to some people but in fact most, if not all, the bacteria on a fillet are on the outside so if we can ensure that chefs trim the meat carefully, and use only lion-stamped eggs which are guaranteed salmonella free, then the dish is relatively safe, albeit more expensive to produce. Other examples are tiramisu, where commercial kitchens should only use pasteurised eggs, and hollandaise or béarnaise sauces which, even under strict temperature control, should not be kept for longer than two hours.'

A customer may encounter Food Alert if after a meal at one of his clients' restaurants the outcome is not pleasure, but some form of discomfort ranging from an upset stomach to a hasty trip to a hospital.

Christopher acknowledged that, whilst every investigation is thorough and sympathetic, this side of his business is not a precise science. 'It cannot be,' he confessed, 'as the same food eaten by two different people will have a different incubation period. But, when we see the same problem happening twice, we enforce changes. Fortunately, 95 per cent of the complaints we receive from restaurant-goers do peter out and there is invariably a pattern to them. Most complaints come in on a Monday morning, when it may be a cover for absenteeism and during December when a lot more people eat out, invariably drink more than usual and may not want to go in the following morning. And barbecues, which can leave food burnt on the outside but still uncooked in the middle, are not as innocent as they appear.'

Reassuringly, Christopher believes that food safety standards have never been higher - he has never, for example, seen anything to equal the worst example when, early in his career, he came across a basement kitchen flooded with sewage in which the chefs continued to prepare food with their trouser legs rolled up. But, perplexingly for someone so committed to hygiene, the number of complaints he receives has never been higher either.

'I really don't think that this is fundamentally the restaurants' fault but rather the consequence of three external factors,'he continued. 'Firstly, the British public are now more ready to complain than ever before. Secondly, there are solicitors prepared to act on a no win/no fee basis and finally, and most justifiably, there is greater control and enforcement at local level through environmental health officers, however overstretched they may be.'

But most of us don't do enough at home, in Christopher's experience, to safeguard our own health. This can easily be improved by investing in an inexpensive fridge thermometer rather than relying on a dial to keep the fridge temperature below five degrees Centigrade; by using two chopping boards, one for raw, the other for cooked food; by buying a sanitising spray to kill the bacteria on a chopping board and by not leaving food out overnight but by putting it in the fridge once it has cooled.

And whilst there will always be some risk, as well as a great deal of pleasure, from eating out Christopher has learnt one maxim from prowling behind the scenes of the country's best restaurants: that although not a guarantee, the best guideline to the state of a restaurant's kitchen are its lavatories. If they are clean and well kept then it is more than likely that the kitchens will be too.

Food Alert, 58 Jermyn Street, London W1 (tel 020-7915 5555, web www.foodalert.com)