Or …thoughts on food safety from a former Environmental Health Officer
Food safety is a subject that preoccupies all of us involved in the preparation, production and sale of food – both directly for those responsible for running a professional kitchen, or indirectly like AC Services, where we repair and maintain the Rational ovens on which so many of those kitchens rely.
So we asked John Timmins, a former Environmental Health Officer (EHO), who now runs his own consultancy, South West Safety Management, for his thoughts on the current state of Food Safety legislation in this country. And John knows a thing or two about the subject. When he qualified as an EHO, Mrs T had been in power for just one year and the USA had pulled out of the Moscow Olympics in protest at the USSR invasion of Afghanistan.
“The supply of food relies on a high degree of trust,” said John. “In what other lawful industry would you walk in off the street and take a product, on trust, into your body.”
During the 1990s a number of schemes were introduced to address what some saw as a breakdown in this trust. The aim was to drive up standards and inform the public by publicising the Food Safety Ratings of restaurants, cafes, bars and takeaways. But, each scheme had a different name with different criteria; some focused solely on food hygiene, others included healthy eating. The result was a lack of consistency and some unintended consequences – for example that many takeaways could never achieve the top grade in some schemes where healthy eating was a key criterion – and so they appeared in some way deficient.
The arrival of the Food Standards Agency in 2001 saw a gradual harmonisation of the different schemes and much greater consistency. However, displaying the Score on the Door remains voluntary and, as a result, consumers only see 4 and 5 star labels and have no indication how well the other businesses manage food safety. There are plans to make displaying the score mandatory – but this has significant implications regarding the mechanism for appeals, consistency and revocation. There’s a danger too that inspections become driven by commercial considerations.
In his time, John has seen legislation come and go and witnessed at first hand the public food scares that so dominate our media from time to time.
“The UK loves its food scares,” said John. “We must do, because they come around so regularly. There was Edwina’s Eggs, Patten’s Burgers, Listeria Hysteria, E.coli 147, and others, through to this year’s horsemeat.”
But, he points out, the difference between the latest scare and its predecessors is that it is concerned not with food safety but with the description used.
“This is nothing new,” said John. “For generations some less than scrupulous businesses have been adding odd materials to their products, which is why older food related legislation introduced the offences of supplying food that ‘is not of the nature, substance or quality demanded’. We’re still waiting for the headline ‘Man Eats Food and Lives!’……”