Recession sees some food businesses taking safety precautions off the menu
“Like every sector of the economy the food industry is facing the recession and businesses are trying to make savings but it is imperative that these cuts do not affect training and impinge on food safety and in turn public health.”
Dr Hegarty cited the increase in the number of food businesses in recent years as another factor. He said there were 48,965 food businesses in 2009 compared with 50,853 now.
Ms Fitzpatrick has also noted the increase in the number of people starting up food businesses during the recession due to forced career changes. People with no background in the food sector are opening coffee shops, food stalls and home-based food businesses.
“This can happen without people knowing all the information, legislation and requirements,” Ms Fitzpatrick said. Their mistakes can be as obvious as opening their doors without notifying the relevant authority, such as the HSE. Typically the HSE inspects businesses such as restaurants, delicatessens, retailers, mobile food businesses, food stalls and some manufacturing premises.
Businesses might also be working in a premises not suited to food businesses because of their layout or size.
‘Eyes and ears for the public’
Ms Fitzpatrick said environmental health officers do not want to discourage people from getting involved in the food industry but they can’t turn a blind eye to breaches of the law. “We are the eyes and ears for the public and our priority must be public health,” she said. “I would encourage anyone thinking of starting up a food business to do their research and educate themselves in all aspects of the business.”
Dr Hegarty encourages businesses to use the supports offered by his authority, either through the fsai.iewebsite or the advice line 1890-336677.
The introduction of additional enforcement powers could also go towards explaining the increase in food safety orders. Previously, a closure order could be served only if there was likely to be a grave and immediate danger to public health at or in the premises. Legislation introduced in 2010 means a closure order can also be served if there is significant non-compliance with food safety legislation. Dr Hegarty said about one-quarter of closure orders are served under the new regulations.
Ms Fitzpatrick said closure orders are “the last resort” for environmental health officers.
“As a profession we have a reputation for being reasonable in our approach to enforcement and where possible we work with the food and service industry towards improving standards. As the eyes and ears of the public behind the scenes we have a statutory duty to act in their best interests,” she said.
But while the enforcement figures have been increasing, environmental health officers and the FSAI stress these orders affect a small proportion of food businesses. Dr Hegarty said just over 100 cases in more than 50,000 food businesses is not a large number.