A Safe Path to Walk

June 9th, 2007 Categories: Hygiene Articles, News Tags:

As the food and tourism industries tread the minefield of food safety, a website launched by the National Hygiene Partnership will make the task somewhat easier.

The 1998 legislation on food safety is quite clear. Every food business must adopt the principles of HACCP and every employee who handles food must be instructed or trained in hygiene. For many this is an unwelcome headache, yet the penalties for non-compliance are very real. But three years on, how well are food related businesses faring?

“The industry has come a long way in recognising food safety as a serious issue,” according to John D. Carroll, Chairman of the National Hygiene Partnership, which this month launched a website as part of its hygiene drive. “Certainly there has been significant change over the last five years in the way businesses handle food. But there is no room for complacency. The industry is still undergoing a sizeable change of mindset and is adapting to new hygiene practices – it has by no means arrived yet.”

Behind this change of mindset is European safety legislation and the threat of sanctions. But change is also being driven by a highly targeted strategy to train Irish food handlers and their managers – a potential target of over 150,000 people in eight industrial sectors.

On the face of it, this would seem to be an impossible task for the National Hygiene Partnership, the body behind the hygiene strategy. It is also a task that is made more difficult by the nature of the industry and recent changes in the structure of its workforce.

It is not simply a question of one-off training for a fixed population. In the industry a portion of the workforce is transient with staff turnover now at 25%. Added to this is the growing issue of language. With the increasing influx of non-nationals into the industry, language is presenting a serious barrier to training and to food safety training in particular.

The diversity of language makes it even more difficult. Apart from the growing number of non English speakers entering the Irish industry from the EU, some 7,000 work permits are now being issued each year to non EU workers – predominantly from Eastern Europe and Asia – who want to work in the hotel and restaurant sector.

“We didn’t think at first that we were going to provide hygiene training in eleven languages,” John D. Carroll admits. “But ultimately our decision to do this was influenced by the make-up of the workforce and the new range of nationalities. To offer training in English alone would have been a wasted effort for a considerable portion of the target workforce, most of whom need safety training on entering the industry and before they are immersed in our language. There is now no excuse for any worker as they can access the basic hygiene rules of our industry in their own language through our “Hygiene Matters” handbooks.”

It has been no easy task to offer training that is accessible to eleven nationalities, but the Partnership has succeeded through a combination of off site courses and electronic training resources. The Partnership’s new website has been critical to this. Launched in early November by the EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, Mr David Byrne, it offers hygiene training material in languages ranging from Portugese to Chinese and Russian. For any business trying to meet their legal requirements on hygiene, it will be an invaluable guide especially as material can be downloaded directly from the website. It also outlines the formal courses available to operatives and managers and explores food safety issues.

“This is an excellent initiative,” according to EU Commissioner Byrne. ” While we may have a host of hygiene legislation, its practical implementation on the ground is the key to its success.”

Legal sanctions alone, though they have brought the industry a long way, cannot sustain a safe food industry. The human factor is one of the industry’s greatest risks and features consistently in the top three causes of food safety breaches. In the main, accidents happen through bad or untrained food handlers and the Partnership is working to build a safe industry on trained employees and on a culture of hygiene consciousness. It is the national provider of hygiene training programmes, which are supported by the Department of Health and Children and the Food Safety Authority. Some 10,000 people will be trained by it in the coming year to meet legislative requirements on hygiene.

The logistics of doing this to a uniform standard are daunting but are already in place. Apart from electronically accessed material, the Partnership’s main training is through courses directed by licensed trainers. The geographical barrier to training has been considerably reduced by the large number of trainers – now numbering 160 – who can work with businesses on the ground. For food businesses there is hygiene training at all levels – for managers, operatives and casual or seasonal staff – backed by training materials including the popular “Hygiene Matters” handbooks.

The growth in demand for such courses shows that the industry is waking up to the fact that food safety is here to stay. It is now a European issue and there has been a sharp shift towards uniform standards in the EU, from the producer to the processor to the end provider in a restaurant, shop or other food outlet. Stringent legislation is in place and both safety auditing and traceability have come to the fore.

“No sector of the food industry can claim that they are unaware of the need to comply with the law,” Dr Patrick Wall warned at the launch of the Partnerships’s website. “When an outbreak of food poisoning occurs, there can be many explanations from the proprietor of the involved food business but there can be no excuse. Food poisoning is a preventable illness. Businesses should protect themselves and their customers by ensuring their staff are appropriately trained.”

And food safety continues to make economic sense. The tourism and food export industries are major contributors to GNP. Both depend on a green, clean image and cannot afford to tarnish their reputation, least of all through food safety scares. The Partnership is acutely aware of this and of the need to keep hygiene and hygiene training on the industry agenda. But it also recognises that the risks involved in a food industry can never be fully eliminated. “They cannot be eliminated, especially given the human factor, but they can be managed very effectively and that is what the Partnership helps businesses to do. We set out a safe path to walk.”

The National Hygiene Partnership is the trading name for a Partnership of Government Agencies and Industry Representatives Bodies which was established for the purpose of developing , promoting and coordinating a range of food safety training initiatives for the Irish Food Sectors. The NHP is registered for VAT in Ireland, Registration number 9535893H and the business address is Abbey Court, Block B. Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1.