Food for thought: industry watchdog in no mood to compromise on standards

Last year closure orders hit a record number, up a third on 2012 figures

Chefs working in commercial kitchens are obliged to follow strict protocols in critical control points such as preparation and storage areas. Photograph: Getty Images/Thinkstock

Chefs working in commercial kitchens are obliged to follow strict protocols in critical control points such as preparation and storage areas. Photograph: Getty Images/Thinkstock

Fri, Feb 28, 2014, 01:00

It made for a stomach-churning list as the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) reported the horrible highlights of what came to its attention last year. Grisliest were a chicken’s head in frozen wings and a human tooth in a Chinese takeaway.

A canine in your Cantonese is one thing but roughly two calls a day were made to the authority’s advice line last year about hygiene standards.

This morning I’m going on a food safety inspection in a south Dublin hotel. Some 500 public servants stand between us and a food-borne illness and senior environmental health officer Marie Ryan is one of them. She has the power to inspect restaurants, cafes, supermarkets or shops unannounced.

“I don’t generally eat in the places I inspect. But I have an identical twin sister. I think she has had a few strange looks. By and large I have a very good relationship with the people I inspect.”

Environmental health officers (“please don’t call us health inspectors”, she says) enforce food hygiene rules and have the power to close a food business immediately if they discover a grave risk to public health. Sewage or rodents will typically do it. The good news is Ryan has never seen a live rat on an inspection. Or a rat run – that’s the telltale line of grease left by the rat’s coat en route between lair and food.

Model kitchen
Going on patrol with the filth police is only allowed by the Health Service Executive under

tame circumstances. The Herbert Park Hotel knows we’re coming so we don’t expect to see anything other than a model kitchen and a pristine set of fridge-temperature records and that’s what we found.

However, standards are not as high across Irish food businesses. Last year the FSAI served closure orders on 119 cafes, restaurants and food businesses, a record number and up one-third on 2012 figures.

What’s the worst thing Ryan has seen? “We had a complaint from a woman in the inner city about a premises that we didn’t know about.”

The woman had seen food parcels left outside the door of a lock-up being eaten by rodents. “We went down and we discovered that there was a food business, a chap who was making coleslaw, egg mayonnaise, potato salad and the place was just not fit to be a food business. It wasn’t clean. The window was broken and while I was there a bird flew in and perched on top of the coleslaw machine. He wasn’t very clean himself unfortunately. We had no option on that day but to close him.”

What does she think is behind the increase in closure orders? Recent EU legislation has delivered further powers, she says. And since 2011 there’s a protocol spelling out the number of steps before closure, which has standardised the process. “In my 15 years I haven’t seen a big decrease in standards. On balance, in my experience, standards have probably increased because people are more aware of food safety.”

This morning’s inspection starts at the back door to check the anti-pest measures (double-screen doors and strips of brushing around the edges), once we’ve washed our hands and donned white coats and hats. But sometimes the pests don’t have to make their way into a kitchen. It hasn’t happened here but in other places “we’re seeing cockroaches”, says Ryan. “They tend to come in in second-hand pieces of equipment and more exotic foods. It wouldn’t be the big ones. They would be small, what we call German cockroaches.”