Sous-vide food risks in aged care

By Andrew Thomson, Think ST Solutions
Thursday, 15 April, 2021

Sous-vide food risks in aged care

Expecting unskilled employees to perform high-risk tasks in any business is risky business. Yet, the practice continues in aged-care kitchen operations. Recent examples include extending the shelf life of texture modified food without completing the required safety and systems checks and paperwork. We know foodborne illness related to Campylobacter infections persist — these matters were discussed last year in blogs and several forums.

A skills shortage of chefs in aged care has prompted many operations to explore food production alternatives to meet the demands of better meal quality through the purchase of pre-prepared sous-vide food products. The untrained cook is expected to ‘finish-off’ the cooking process and present a quality and nutritious plated meal to residents. Box ticked.

The risks

Dr Douglas Powell, former professor of food safety for 17 years at the universities of Guelph and Kansas State, explained that anyone who provides food for sale is responsible for its safety.

Sous-vide production is full of risk and requires skilled employees that can follow higher standards of food safety. Sous-vide is a French word meaning ‘under vacuum’. It is a processing technique whereby freshly prepared foods are vacuum sealed in individual packages and heated in a temperature-controlled bath for a defined length of time. After cooking, the products are chilled, stored refrigerated and reheated before consumption. This technique can present food safety risks that should be identified and controlled. These include the potential for survival and growth of bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum, which can grow under the anaerobic (absence of oxygen) conditions created by the vacuum packaging. Proper storage and handling is critical. Potential problems can occur if the food is stored for later eating. When the food is in cold storage, Listeria monocytogenes can grow at temperatures well below 5°C (NSW Food Authority, Queensland Health, Eija Hyytia-Trees et al).

Risk management

Dr Powell said the focus on food safety remains insufficient among senior leaders at aged-care facilities engaging in sous-vide production. “Where is the evidence and risk-based thinking required here and so widely discussed at the Royal Commission hearings?” he asked. Boards of residential aged care and chief executives must ask the hard questions.


Leaders at all levels need to understand their food law responsibilities. Food Safety Standard 3.2.1 requires aged-care organisations to have an up-to-date food safety management system — a living, breathing document that identifies the food safety hazards associated with the business’s food handling activities and indicates how the business will monitor and control these hazards. It requires regular review of the food safety system to ensure its suitability and adequacy, and it must reflect current food production activities and when changes are made.

To manage the food safety hazards surrounding sous-vide production methods, it is important to follow validated sous-vide time and temperature methods, sourced from up-to-date guidelines and resources as well as using strict hygiene procedures. These standards may challenge food suppliers and aged-care operations to achieve full compliance.

The questions remain: Have you received regulatory approval for the sous vide production activities you are engaging in? Did you verify the standards of food safety of food purchased from your food distributor? What other factors influenced your decision to proceed with this activity and was this based on a risk-based approach?

Employee learning

When it comes to managing food-safety-related risks, a skilled workforce is required. The time has come to allocate financial resources for employee learning programs to provide food-handling employees with the skills they urgently need now and in the future.

Learning about food safety concepts and practices should develop employees’ knowledge, understanding and behaviours, with the required critical thinking enabling them to react and make appropriate decisions on food safety issues and execute corrective measures when necessary — a great protection measure for an organisation.

The success and good reputation of a food operation requires the input of many different components, one of the most important being the implementation of sound practices, which includes access to up-to-date information from industry experts.

The safety of customers must be of paramount importance. So too is brand protection and reputation.

Andrew Thomson is the company director for Think ST Solutions, a food consultancy offering practical solutions to both management and staff in hospitals, aged-care facilities, restaurants, hotels and the food industry. Think ST Solutions helps protect and grow new and established foodservice business through innovation and risk reduction strategies. For more information, visit

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