Recession sees some food businesses taking safety precautions off the menu
Not washing her hands led to the previously anonymous Irish cook Mary Mallon being transformed into New York’s notorious Typhoid Mary. She was blamed for infecting more than 50 people with the disease in the early 1900s and reportedly said she rarely washed her hands when cooking as she didn’t see the need for it.
Food safety has come a long way since those heady days when fridges, food gloves and best-before dates were unheard of. Now, people starting up food businesses frequently complain about the overwhelming number of regulations facing them.
So does this improvement in food hygiene standards mean the number of food safety enforcement orders has collapsed in recent years? Actually, no.
According to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), 46 food businesses were served with enforcement orders in 2008. Last year, up to December 19th, 108 businesses had been served with the orders. This was 24 more than the total for 2011, or an annual increase of nearly 30 per cent. The types of orders vary but are all served because of a risk to public health posed by the restaurant, take-away, shop or food stall.
October saw the highest number of enforcement orders in 10 years and at that time the authority’s chief executive, Prof Alan Reilly, said food safety inspectors were regularly encountering cases where the health of consumers was being put at risk because the businesses were not meeting their legal obligations.
Common reasons for orders include pest infestation, lack of hygiene and storing food at the wrong temperature.
Why is this happening? Food safety experts cite a number of reasons, and the recession is mentioned more than once.
The FSAI’s director of service contracts, Dr Bernard Hegarty, said there is a suggestion that businesses are cutting back on food safety practices to save money. If they have fewer staff and those people are working harder it may mean corners are cut when it comes to hygiene practices.
Finding the resources for staff training might not be a priority when the till remains silent. But Dr Hegarty said this is “a false economy” as the serving of a closure order will cost more money for two reasons. A business can be shut down until the problem is dealt with, so trade is immediately lost.
He said the reputational damage could cost a lot more. The closing of a premises and local media reports about it can seriously damage business and lost ground is hard to make up in the current climate.
This is echoed by the Environmental Health Officers’ Association. Its members, who are Health Service Executive employees, issue most of the enforcement orders. The association’s spokeswoman, Lisa Fitzpatrick, said training is vital to ensure food safety and should never be looked upon as an optional extra. “It is key to ensuring food safety within a food business,” she said.
“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.
“0.2 per cent is not really a barometer for the whole food industry,” he said. But he said there is always a concern this small percentage could affect the reputation of the entire food sector.
Closure orders: Food watchdog’s concerns
Almost one quarter of closure orders issued between 2004 and 2011 involved ethnic food businesses, mainly Chinese takeaways and African food businesses.
Dr Bernard Hegarty of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland says this issue has concerned the authority for some time and it has introduced several initiatives to help improve food safety practices in ethnic food businesses.
He says Chinese takeaways often operate in small premises with limited resources. Business operators may not be familiar with European food laws and they may have difficulty accessing information in their own languages.
Since 2004 the authority has provided training for 400 Chinese food businesses and has provided information in Mandarin and Cantonese. Dr Hegarty says it continues to expand its range of training materials to cater for ethnic food business operators.
In more recent years it has provided customised training for African food businesses in areas such as hygiene, food display and food safety hazards such as cross-contamination.
Food safety: The statistics
The number of food businesses in the State, up from 48,965 in 2009
The proportion of businesses penalised for breaches in food safety
Enforcement orders served for breaches in food safety legislation up to December 19th, 2012. This compares to 84 in 2011, 73 in 2010, 54 in 2009 and 46 in 2008.
Closure orders in 2012. A closure order is issued if there is likely to be a grave and immediate danger to public health or if there is significant non-compliance with food safety legislation.
Improvement orders in 2012. An improvement order may be issued if an improvement notice is not complied with. The notice is served if the handling or preparation of food could pose a risk to public health.
Prohibition orders in 2012. A prohibition order stops the sale of a product, temporarily or permanently, because of a serious risk to public health.