FSA targets 4.5m cases of food poisoning

Related tags Food poisoning Organic food

The annual Catering Forum, organised by Richmond Events, attracts some 700 catering professionals from pub chains, restaurants and hotels. The...

The annual Catering Forum, organised by Richmond Events, attracts some 700 catering professionals from pub chains, restaurants and hotels. The two-day conference brings delegates up to date on important food issues and provides an all-important networking opportunity. The Publican's Editor Lorna Harrison reports back from this year's event

Cases of food poisoning are to be cut by 20 per cent over the next five years under ambitious plans by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Speaking at the Catering Forum, Geoffrey Podger, chief executive of the government agency, said food poisoning was a significant cause of illness in the UK with up to 4.5 million cases a year.

"We are determined to make the effort to reduce food poisoning," he said. "We have a very high level of cases in Britain and we need to tackle it at all levels of the food chain from packaging up to food preparation."

In defence of pubs and catering outlets, Mr Podger said caterers often took the blame for food poisoning because incidents could be easily tracked back to specific outlets but he called on the industry to self-regulate to improve the poor statistics.

"Reducing food poisoning is not rocket science. Basic staff training, like washing hands after going to the toilet, can dramatically reduce the high level of food poisoning cases.

"Merely passing legislation is not the way to reduce food poisoning. It has to have the commitment of all those involved."

In what can be taken as a clampdown on unfit outlets, the FSA is considering introducing a system of classification which will give people a "broad gist" of cleanliness and hygiene standards in an outlet.

"This would be a sensible and well-run system like the star system for hotels which will mean something to the public. We will also be looking at a series of incentives to reward well-performing outlets."

The scheme, which aims to broadly make environmental health inspections open to the public, could effectively put poor performing pubs out of business. But at this stage the FSA has no firm proposals on how the plans will be put into practice and is open to comments.

Under proposals to reduce food poisoning the FSA will be:

  • ensuring that HACCP risk assessment plans are working
  • initiating a national campaign to highlight basic hygiene principles.

Issues from the Catering Forum:

  • Labelling law concern

Despite government pressure for pubs to comply with new food labelling laws, no prosecutions have yet been made.

In September 1999 it became an offence to sell food containing genetically modified ingredients without including the information on a label, which includes menus.

At the time, Geoffrey Podger (pictured)​, chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, said local authorities would rigorously enforce the law which has forced publicans to reprint menus to state which items contain GM ingredients. Fines of up to £5,000 can be imposed on publicans who fail to comply.

However, Mr Podger has admitted that he was not aware of a single prosecution - a matter that will be of concern to many publicans who spent time and money complying with the law.

"There was a lot of public concern about GM products at the time and this requirement was made to address that concern and protect the catering industry from protests," he said. "It is still very much the case that if people don't comply they will leave themselves open to prosecution."

The Publican Newspaper's most recent Market Report survey of 1,000 licensees showed that 30 per cent of publicans had failed to comply with the law. Just under 50 per cent said there was no demand from customers, 30 per cent said staff were empowered to deal with the matter verbally and 18 per cent said they had received inadequate information about the law.

  • Origins of 'organic'

Hundreds of publicans are continuing to break the law by marketing organic dishes on their menus.

Unless pubs have been certified by a recognised body, they cannot legally highlight dishes as being of "organic" origin.

Helen Taylor (pictured), technical operations director at the Soil Association, said: "Organic is a legal term which covers production and processing of organic food. This gives a level of assurance to the consumer."

Ms Taylor said any outlets that continue to use the term "organic" would be open to prosecution.

The warning will come as a surprise to many publicans who create organic dishes to give their customers a choice. However, licensees can safeguard themselves by using a generic phrase stating that "where possible ingredients are sourced organically".

The red tape which surrounds organic foods continues despite the fact that more people are buying the products. Latest statistics from Taylor Nelson Sofres show that annual spend on organic produce to April this year was £491m - up 54 per cent on last year.

To be able to market organic produce legally pubs face a rigorous process which involves a series of inspections before the outlet can be officially certified.

  • Taking away profits

Pubs and other caterers must prepare themselves for the increasing threat of ready-prepared takeaway meals.

Ian Woolven, of research company IGD, said 2002 will be the year of meal solutions - a trend that could affect pubs.

"There is a very real threat and outlets should be prepared for it," he said highlighting the fact that good quality supermarket ready-made meals and takeaways will make many people think twice about dining out.

"The good news is, research shows that 70 per cent of people dine for special and social occasions," he said. But he added that a further 28 per cent also do so largely for convenience which poses the biggest worry.

  • Hanging on to staff

A challenge has gone out to pubs and caterers to lock in good staff and prevent them deserting to other industries.

With the hospitality industry set to create 300,000 new jobs by 2009, pubs need to change their image so that young people opt for them as their number one choice.

This was the message that came from a panel of speakers at the Catering Forum who acknowledged that recruitment was one of the biggest challenges facing our industry.

Highlighting the problem, a snapshot survey of 250 delegates showed that just half a dozen had a working strategy to stop good people leaving their companies.

Declan Swan, director of the Hospitality Training Foundation, highlighted the fact that 75 per cent of vacancies remain unfilled across hospitality and 63 per cent of employers suffer skills shortages.

"The industry must take responsibility and look after people," he said. "Until we crack the issue we must persevere."

He said employers could start by:

  • reviewing company values - would you let your son or daughter work there?
  • encouraging staff to get involved in decision making
  • investing in people by offering good training.

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