The number of illegal food businesses operating out of private homes and other locations more than doubled last year, according to Ireland’s food safety watchdog.
Successive Covid-19-related lockdowns that closed restaurants and saw online ordering sky-rocket were behind a surge of home-cooked food unfit for human consumption being sold to the general public, according the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI).
The authority led investigations into 47 unregistered food businesses selling, amongst other things, sushi and baked goods last year compared with 19 in 2019. It also took 17 tonnes of potentially dangerous food off the market.
The unregistered food businesses were operating illegally without the knowledge or supervision of the authorities and were found in domestic kitchens and private homes with inadequate food safety processes, procedures and facilities in place.
The FSAI said the illegal operations it uncovered were producing, processing or distributing baked goods, eggs, ready-to-eat sushi, poultry, and raw and cooked meats.
Last November three online sushi takeaway services operating from the bedroom of a suburban house in Santry, north Co Dublin, were closed after an operation involving the HSE and the FSAI.
Health inspectors discovered the unregistered sushi takeaways advertising online and staged an immediate inspection, finding a house in a suburban estate producing raw fish with cooked rice, without any hygiene or temperature controls.
Sushi is a high-risk product because it contains raw fish that must be kept chilled to reduce the growth of dangerous bacteria. Cooked rice, which is a ready-to-eat product, must also be kept chilled.
However the bedroom-based operation had no food safety management system or monitoring of “the cold chain” and “no evidence of traceability of raw ingredients” the health inspectors found.
Food law requires all food businesses to be notified to the relevant authority irrespective of the size or type, prior to operating.
The requirement ensures food businesses will be registered and/or approved with official inspection agencies to protect consumer health. Food business owners are legally responsible for ensuring that the food they produce is safe to eat.
In 2020, five Closure Orders, five Compliance Notices and three Prohibition Orders were served on unregistered/unapproved food businesses.
There were also two warrants obtained to gain access to unregistered food businesses running their business from a domestic dwelling with the investigations resulting in 17 tonnes of unfit and/or unsafe food taken off the market.
The FSAI's chief executive, Dr Pamela Byrne, said consumers needed to be vigilant and only buy food from reputable food businesses.
“Consumers have a right to safe food and bogus operators seeking to make a quick profit at the risk of potentially making consumers sick or selling non-compliant or fraudulent foodstuffs will be pursued using the legal powers available to us,” she said.
Dr Byrne said it was “very concerning to see an increase in the number of unregistered food businesses found to be operating in 2020”.
“There is no doubt that Covid-19 has presented many challenges for the food industry and for people working in the sector, however, this does not change the legal requirements which are in place to protect consumer health.”
She said many of the unregistered food businesses had been using social media platforms including Facebook, Adverts.ie, Done Deal and Instagram to advertise.
She warned the FSAI and food inspectors would continue to monitor these sites and take appropriate action, if unregistered food businesses are discovered.