No-One Is Outside the Food Safety Net

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

In 1997 a food franchise in Croke Park was convicted of 70 breaches of hygiene regulations. Today, under changed legislation, each breach could bring a £1,000 fine and/or six months’ imprisonment.

The law on food safety is now tough and exacting, following changes in 1998 which introduced higher penalties and new requirements for food businesses. No business – involved in preparation, storage or service of food – is exempt and the recent E-coli scare in a Donegal creche underlined the need for this.

“I don’t believe that the hospitality industry fully realises that there are no exceptions where this law is concerned”, points out John D. Carroll, Chairman of the National Hygiene Partnership. “It will apply equally to small and large businesses, whether hotels, restaurants, bed and breakfast operations or catering outlets. If food is handled on the premises, the company must have a proven safety system – otherwise they should not be in business. There’s no room for putting your head in the sand.”.

Dr Patrick Wall, Chief Executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, agrees. “With food poisoning, there is no such thing as bad luck, just bad management.”

There is no doubt that the legislation is beginning to bite and prosecutions are already recorded. But it is also clear that the hospitality/catering industry is a prime offender where food safety is concerned. “Food poisoning outbreaks in summer 1998 and 1999 were generally related to this industry,” according to Ray Ellard, Chief Environmental Health Officer at the Food Safety Authority.

It is worth considering how hygiene has moved to centre-stage. Back in 1993, the EU issued a directive calling on member states to introduce a Code of Hygiene Practice. Ireland responded by devising the IS 340: 1994 for the catering industry, the first such code of practice which is now specifically approved for the industry under the new legislation. Two years later, the National Hygiene Partnership was formed to improve hygiene standards within the hospitality industry. The NHP, which is comprised of representatives of CERT, the National Standards Authority, the Environment Health Officers Association, Excellence Ireland and the Irish Hotel & Catering Institute, is the umbrella body for hygiene training in the hospitality industry and its programmes and publications are approved by the Department of Health and the Food Safety Authority. The latter was established in 1997 and now has overall responsibility for food law enforcement – since July of this year all the existing health agencies including the Health Boards are working under contract to it. These developments prepared the ground for April 1998, when the EU Statutory Instruments 85 and 86 on the hygiene and control of foodstuffs became Irish law – and hygiene regulations changed forever.

The 1998 legislation gave new powers to the Health Boards and Environmental Health Officers to close businesses or to remove food where a safety issue is suspected or proved. The penalty for contravention became £1,000 per breach and/or six months’ imprisonment.

In essence, there are two main requirements for food businesses under the new legislation. They must supervise and instruct and/or train all food handlers in hygiene matters, commensurate with their work activity. They must also adopt the principles of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (H.A.C.C.P).

What does this mean for the hospitality industry?

It means that every employee who handles food, whether working in the kitchen, restaurant or (where there is room service) accommodation, must be instructed or trained in hygiene. While the law does not compel businesses to formally train their food handlers, it is generally accepted that formal courses are more beneficial. Certainly, they offer clear evidence of compliance with the regulations.

To adopt H.A.C.C.P., businesses must now analyse all food hazards that could arise and set up a system of prevention. The law states that they must:

  • Analyse the hazards
  • Identify the points where food hazards could occur
  • Define the points that are critical to food safety (critical control points)
  • Identify and implement effective controls and monitor the critical control points
  • Review the system periodically and whenever the food business’ operations change.

“Small businesses don’t need the same sophisticated systems as the others”, advises Ray Ellard, “but the system must be proportionate to the risks. “The IS 340: 94 standard was developed specifically to enable small businesses to implement the principles of HACCP. Conformance to the guidelines contained in this document is of the utmost importance. Under the 1998 law, a “food business” means any undertaking which handles food, whether for profit or not and whether public or private. Charities or private clubs are therefore not exempt. More interesting, and perhaps more worrying for some, the “proprietor” is deemed to be not only the person who carries on the business. The person “for the time being in charge” can also be charged under the law, bringing managers into the net of accountability. “While the new legislation is less prescriptive than previously, the responsibility for producing safe food rests firmly with the proprietor or manager,” stresses Ray Ellard

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.