Food hazards

Related tags Environmental health Food safety Occupational safety and health Eho

Improved communication and flow of information can transform the Environmental Health Officer from a figure of fear into your greatest ally. Fiona...

Improved communication and flow of information can transform the Environmental Health Officer from a figure of fear into your greatest ally. Fiona Pavely looks at ways to go about this.

For some, a visit from the Environmental Health Officer (EHO) is as popular as a dose of the flu. Rightly or wrongly, the EHO has gained a reputation in the catering industry that is on a par with estate agents and tax inspectors, but improved communication and flow of information can make this watchdog your greatest ally.

A growing threat to food safety is being posed by a serious shortage of students choosing a career as an EHO. Applications for training are down more than 80 per cent over the past six years, according to a recent article in The Guardian.

While the initial reaction of many pub caterers may not be to bemoan their diminishing numbers, Mike Garton, assistant secretary of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH), believes that EHOs and pub caterers could and should enjoy a more harmonious relationship.

This is a view that is shared by Simon Timon, manager of The Gate in Barnet, who feels that fostering a good relationship with your EHO is imperative. He said: "The first thing I do when I take over a new pub is contact the local police and the EHO, those are the people you need on your side."

Mike Garton wishes more publicans would adopt such a forthright attitude. "If publicans are uncertain about any aspects of health and safety law, the environmental health department is there to advise," he said. "After all, prevention is much better than getting involved further along the line. However, I think many publicans are afraid that if they contact their EHO they will be inspected. This isn't the case and we have plenty of information that can assist."

"So as not to give the impression that food safety solely involves enforcement, the other side of the food safety division's work must be stressed," said a spokesperson for Belfast City Council.

This involves the advisory and consultative roles adopted by the division in relation to planning applications, and alcohol licensing applications. The division also gives assistance to business operators on the layout of their premises, the use of suitable equipment and materials and other matters relating to the composition and labelling of their products.

"We prefer to work with businesses to ensure that they are complying with the legislation," elaborated Sandra Moore, business unit manager of the health protection unit in South Bedfordshire. "Where a proprietor is unsure of the legislation or needs help in complying, we are only too happy to assist. However, where there are blatant breaches of the legislation or there is a serious/imminent risk to health or previous informal warnings have been ignored, we do take formal action."

EHO Adrian Jenkins has seen numerous cases of caterers flagrantly flouting the law. "You see things like mouse droppings on food, which is pretty bad - you could get closed down for that."

On the plus side, Adrian finds fulfilment in his work. He added: "Making sure someone puts a guard on a ham slicer might sound trivial, but if it stops them chopping their finger off, you've done something worthwhile - preventing accidents or illness that might ruin someone's life."

EHOs are currently being advised to look for ways of preventing slips, trips and falls, which, according to Mike Garton, represent the biggest percentages of accidents in pub kitchens, accounting for over 50 per cent.

"A lot of accident prevention is simple common sense such as mopping up spills straight away, but we also look out for floor surfaces and more," said Mike.

So what should you do to prepare for an EHO visit? Mike revealed that unless there has been a reported safety breach, contrary to common belief, an EHO visit should not come unannounced. "You should receive correspondence from the local authority making an appointment," he said.

"This way the EHO knows that the manager will be present when the inspection takes place and all relevant paperwork and documentation should be prepared. You should also be sent a leaflet entitled When The Inspector Calls which details the rights of the dutyholder and what the inspector should do."

Mike suggested that publicans should enquire what the inspector is coming to inspect when they call - health and safety or food safety. He added: "In most local authorities there are different inspectors for health and safety and for food, but in more rural regions for example, the EHO will monitor everything."

But the environmental health office is not the only source of information available to publicans.

"Legislation is often available for reference in libraries. There are also a number of guidance publications which can be purchased from the HMSO and Chadwick House Publications," suggested Sandra Moore.

Recognising that health and safety laws can be a minefield, the Punch Pub Company also produces a manual for publicans which covers all eventualities, including bomb threats and equipment safety to risk assessment.

Catherine Chauvet, food development and marketing manager of Punch believes that health and safety guidelines and laws can be incredibly confusing for publicans. She has even heard of pubs receiving direct mailings stating that laws have been changed, often to sell a product on the back of it.

"This is just playing to publicans' insecurity," she said.

"Food safety guidelines should be in plain English. There are too many grey areas."

What should you expect from an EHO?

  • A courteous manner
  • To be shown identification
  • Feedback from any inspection, such as information about hazards which have been identified and guidance on what you must to do to comply with the law
  • To be given the reasons in writing for any action you are asked to take
  • Where there is an apparent breach of law, a statement of what that law is
  • Reasonable time to meet statutory requirements, except where there is an immediate risk to public health
  • To be told the procedures for appealing against local authority action.

What powers do Inspectors have?

  • They can take samples and photographs, and inspect records
  • They may write to you informally asking you to put right any problems they find. Where breaches of the law are identified which must be put right they may serve you with an improvement notice
  • They can detain or seize suspect food
  • They may decide to recommend a prosecution. If the prosecution is successful the council may impose prohibitions on the use of premises or equipment
  • If there is an imminent health risk to consumers, inspectors can serve an emergency prohibition notice which forbids the use of the premises or equipment.

Case study

Offence:​ Food Safety Act 1990 (section 8) and Food Safety (General Food Hygiene) Regs 1995Penalty:​ Two years conditional discharge

During a routine inspection an EHO found a quantity of unfit food. In addition to this, food storage was not being carried out hygienically. The food premise was not kept clean and was not maintained in good repair.

The premise was not built to protect it against condensation or undesirable mould. There was inadequate lighting and adequate safety procedures for staff had not been implemented.

The proprietor pleaded guilty to 10 charges. On imposing sentence the magistrate commented on the seriousness of the breaches but was not able to issue a fine due to the defendant's lack of income. It was therefore decided to grant a discharge preventing her from working in a food premise for two years.

(Source: South Beds

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