When eating out at a restaurant if you find a human hair in your food you are likely to be disgusted. You will lose your appetite and straight away leave the restaurant and never return. The same applies to find a human hair in processed or packaged foods. You are likely to dump the entire contents into the dustbin no matter how expensive. Human hair is made up of the protein keratin, which also makes up the outer layer of the skin and nails. In itself, keratin might not pose a problem but the truth is that besides feeling nauseated hair can lead to contamination in foods and of course finding hair in food casts a shadow on the reputation of the brand.
Human hair is a Physical Hazard
Human Hair is one of the physical contaminants in food along with stones, metal pieces, insect parts, rodent droppings etc. All of these can cause physical harm as well as result in foodborne illnesses like cholera, typhoid, jaundice etc. To ensure food safety the FSSAI has established hygiene and sanitation guidelines as per Schedule 4 of the regulations which mentions that human hair must be controlled from falling into exposed foods in eating establishments as well as in food processing and manufacturing plants. According to food regulators, the term food includes foods, beverages, bottled water and nutritional and functional products so none of these products can contain hair.
How hair causes contamination
You will be surprised to note that hair is one of the most commonly found ‘foreign bodies’ in food. Foreign body means any extraneous matter found in food which is not a part of the ingredients. Therefore any foreign body found in food means that the food is contaminated and not fit to eat. Human hair is termed a physical as well as a microbiological contaminant because besides being extraneous matter, it can also lead to the growth of microorganisms in the food. Oil, sweat, a residue of hair treatment chemicals and shampoos, dyes or any other organic matter sticking to the hair becomes a breeding ground for pathogens when left in processed foods for long periods of time. A report published by the National Institute of Science, Technology, and Development Studies, New Delhi on human hair waste states that hair could contain a number of toxic chemical contaminants. These contaminants reach hair from the environment and so these same toxic substances can reach food from human hair.
Human Hair in Food & Risks
Hair in food also poses a physical risk as a person can choke on it, it can get stuck in the throat or cause nausea and vomiting. However, besides the physical aspect of hair is a potential route of Staphylococcus aureus contamination from the human scalp. Human hair can transmit ringworm as well as fungal infections if a person is infected by these. Staph aureus, as it’s often called, is a type of bacteria that can be found on the skin and hair as well as in the noses and throats of people and animals. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention states that the most common way for food to be contaminated with Staphylococcus is through contact with food workers especially when foods are prepared by hand and not cooked. Hair in a salad or cut fruits, sandwiches and chutneys could pose a problem as hair can remain in these foods for hours. There is a heavy stigma attached to any food that contains hair, be it at a restaurant or in home-made pickles. The popular sun-dried chips & papads can easily be contaminated with foreign matters including hair as they are left to dry in open, but finding a human hair in the restaurant food would be due to the lack of good personal hygiene practices.
Human hair is shed constantly
According to Hair Foundation, Queen’s College, Oxford University, England every human being with hair on their heads, sheds between 100-150 hairs every day at a constant rate. Therefore a person doing an eight-hour shift will lose around 33-50 hairs. Multiply this by the number of personnel working in the restaurant or manufacturing plant and you can calculate the pathogen risk to food. This figure is attributed to only hair from the head but hair can reach foods from the arms, beards, mustaches and even from the chest. Hair from the arms can travel into baked products from flour that has to be kneaded with the hands. Anything that enters food from the body parts of human beings is a potential contaminant. Therefore people working in restaurants, bakeries, and food processing units have to follow strict hair control measures.
Preventing hair contamination
FSSAI has strict guidelines for following good hygiene and sanitation practices including wearing nets and caps to prevent hair from entering foods. In most countries, people working in the food industry are required to cover their hair because it can contaminate food. Complete capture hairnets are now available that has led to the decrease of hair falling into foods. Some countries even have rules for wearing beard and mustache restraints especially for those with long beards and mustaches as people tend to touch them absentmindedly which could cause hair to fall into foods. Good manufacturing practices advise that all personnel wears hairnets, headbands, caps, beard covers or other effective hair restraints so hair does not come into contact with exposed foods.
Why FBOs need to control hair contamination
When consumers find hair in foods they are likely to wonder what other possible contaminants the food could contain and if it is safe to eat. Hair in food is like a sign which tells consumers about the poor hygiene standards maintained by the Food Business Operator (FBO). It brings the restaurant, product or brand adverse publicity which could result in loss of sales. FBOs need to ensure food safety, by complying with FSSAI regulations so their brand is protected. To gain consumer trust in their products they have to take all measures to prevent any kind of contamination. It is therefore important to address all personal hygiene issues because in food preparation and food manufacturing plants there are a number of personnel who can transfer contaminants to food. Contaminants can be transferred from the body, skin, mouth, hands or hair to the product or from clothing, footwear, utensils and other tools used in daily food preparation activities.