Keep your EHO onside

29/11/2016 - 23:00
Environmental health officers (EHOs) wield significant power when it comes to inspecting your premises. Fiona Sinclair, a director of food safety at consultancy STS, explains why it pays caterers to work hard on building relationships.

Do in-house and contract catering businesses really understand the legislation or the consequences regarding food safety?

I ask the question because foodservice businesses today must comply with myriad rules and regulations that control the preparation and serving of food.

And be warned – several milestone court cases in recent months have resulted in prosecutions for breaches in food safety, which have highlighted the powers that EHOs have when entering your premises.

In a 2015 case, the chef and manager of a hotel in Essex were jailed for obstructing the course of justice by falsifying temperature and cooling records. Their failure to defrost and properly cook a turkey sadly resulted in one woman dying and 33 others suffering food poisoning.

Earlier this year, a restaurant owner was found guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence after a customer died following an allergic reaction and anaphylactic shock from eating a takeaway meal. The restaurateur was branded as “reckless” by the court for “cutting corners” and was jailed for six years.

Cases like these, where customers’ safety has been put at risk due to the negligence of food operators, are increasingly being publicised in the media, and we’re becoming more aware of the hefty fines and the custodial sentences sometimes being handed down by the courts.

Everyone in the catering sector has a duty of care, and needs to understand the powers that EHOs and trading standards officers have and regularly exercise.

Working under the Food Hygiene Regulations, these professionals have a great deal of power, covering the production of food, training and food safety management, using HACCP safety principles like temperature control, cross-contamination control and personal hygiene to name but a few.

Regardless of whether officers have prior knowledge of a breach, they have ‘power of entry’ and can inspect, unannounced, any food premises ‘at all reasonable hours’. Once inside, they can then act upon whatever they find.

While on the premises, the EHO can ask to see various records relating to the business – including computer records – and hard copies may be taken away. These could include records relating to HACCP procedures such as process control and cleaning schedules, or commercial records showing where products have been sent. They can also question staff and take photographic or video evidence.

The inspectors give each business a ‘Food Hygiene Rating’, which will also be posted online for customers to see. A poor visit means a poor score, which can potentially reduce future custom.

On the other hand, a good food hygiene rating is good for business and companies often display their scores as proof that they meet the requirements of food hygiene law.

In Wales, all businesses are required to display their ratings in a prominent position regardless of the score and a change in the law in England is in the pipeline that would require food businesses to display their ratings as well.

For minor breaches, where the food business may need to tighten up on controls, an informal notice or letter is the norm. If this approach proves unsuccessful, or the seriousness of a breach warrants it, then improvement notices are next.

These will outline what’s wrong, make clear why and suggest measures to address the issues. They carry a timeframe of a minimum of 21 days, during which the food business must take remedial action. Failure to comply may result in prosecution and subsequent penalties.

In more extreme cases, where there is an imminent risk to public health, such as pest infestation or a food poisoning outbreak, a hygiene emergency prohibition notice may be served. When confirmed by a magistrates’ court, this often results in the premises being closed down. The business may only reopen once enforcement bodies are satisfied that the business no longer poses a threat to health.

The consequence of non-compliance depends on which court hears the case. Magistrates’ courts can impose prison sentences of up to six months and fines up to £20,000.

In more severe cases, a crown court can hand down a custodial sentence of up to two years for a food-related offence, with unlimited fines. Even sterner sentencing can be applied if the crime is more serious as in the manslaughter example referenced earlier.

What steps should businesses take to stay compliant? First, all food businesses must be registered with their local environmental health department so they can be monitored and inspected.

All food handlers and line managers must be trained in food hygiene commensurate with their work activity, and hold valid certification. A documented food safety management system, based on HACCP principles, must be in place.

Businesses must also have a fail-safe system to demonstrate that they know about the 14 allergenic ingredients. If any are present in the foods they provide, they should detail how they communicate this information to staff and customers, as well as the processes in place to avoid accidental cross-contamination.

Business size, location or lack of awareness of legislative requirements are never excuses for non-compliance, and all staff are responsible for ensuring processes are in place and up-to-date. If staff are ever in any doubt, they have to understand they must ask.

Advice and assistance is available from your local authority EHO or from an independent food safety and health and safety organisation.

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