Food scares will always come and go, whether it's horse meat, dioxins in pork or BSE. But when the next crisis arrives, there will be a new face leading the response at the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.
Dr Pamela Byrne became chief executive of the agency in March, taking over from Prof Alan Reilly. The environmental toxicologist from Cork is the second woman to head the authority, following in the footsteps of the late Anne Westby who served in the role for just three months before her sudden death in 2003. Dr Byrne notes with interest that 75 per cent of the authority's staff are female.
There are about 80 people working in the agency but she has received sanction from the Department of Health to fill several vacancies that remained unfilled because of the State recruitment embargo.
She says her job is to protect consumers’ health and that ensuring that all food ingredients are traceable is a key part of this. “Traceability within food business systems is going to be critically important,” she says.
“With globalisation of the food supply chain, we have ingredients coming from a number of different sources. We have products coming in from a number of different sources. And we have a lot of products going out.
“With the intended expansion of the food industry, it’s going to be really important that robust traceability systems are in place. And it’s also going to help us in terms of understanding where there might be new and emerging risks.”
The value of food and drink exports has grown from €7.1 billion in 2009 to €10.5 billion but Byrne says this growth also presents challenges. “As anything gets bigger there’s always going to be a need to make sure that those systems are fit for purpose. Food businesses are sourcing ingredients from all over the world and they must make sure their suppliers are reputable.” Exotic tastes But with increasingly exotic tastes being catered for, isn’t it impossible to ensure that all 21 ingredients in one recipe, for example, can be traced back to source and vouched for? “No, I don’t think it’s impossible,” she says. “A reputable food business operator who is sourcing ingredients from multiple sources all over the world should put in the systems to make sure that they are convinced of the reputable nature of every supplier.”
She says the horse meat crisis heightened everyone’s awareness of what can go wrong in the food industry.
So where will the next food scare come from? The authority is working with its European counterparts in investigations into the substitution of lower-value fish species for higher-value species, and the passing off of lower-quality honey as manuka honey.
Byrne also says her agency and the Department of Agriculture are leading a drive to reduce outbreaks of the food-poisoning bacterium campylobacter and are bringing chicken producers, processors and retailers together to do this.
The bug causes acute gastroenteritis with diarrhoea and vomiting and can be life-threatening in the very young and old. The number of cases of food poisoning caused by campylobacter rose to a record 2,600 last year, compared with 2,288 in 2013.
“The industry, in fairness, has been doing various things, looking at new technologies to reduce the level of campylobacter and those have resulted in some reduction but I think we will see a better reduction when they are all working together, right from the producers through to the processors and into the retailers.” Exposure She says about 600 cases have been reported to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre already this year. “But it’s . . . a bug that exists in the environment and there’s no way we are ever going to get rid of campylobacter. What we have to do is control it, and control the exposure of consumers to campylobacter.
“But the advice to consumers is the same as always, cook your chicken thoroughly and don’t wash it.”
Consumers may be thorough when preparing food, but what about the businesses ordered to close temporarily because of food safety breaches ranging from rodent droppings to mouldy fridges?
Last year was the second worst year on record for the number of closure and other enforcement orders issued, with 113 food businesses ordered to close temporarily or take immediate steps to rectify food safety breaches.
Byrne says there are about 55,000 food businesses in the State so the breaches involve a relatively small number of businesses, but there is still no excuse for bad hygiene practices.
“It’s important for them to be on top of it and to understand that the onus is on them to make sure they have food safety management systems and hygiene practice systems in place.”
She says the authority is doing its utmost to help food businesses to comply with food hygiene regulations by organising training and briefings and providing online materials. “We have all of those resources available for food business operators and really it’s important for them to seek that information and support where they absolutely need it.”