Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hell's Kitchen

I had one of my most eye-opening days ever recently, following an Environmental Health Officer through a plethora of food-selling venues. It won't stop me eating out though!
Here's my report in today's Independent... and how I look in a hairnet. Nice.


By Susan Daly
Tuesday June 30 2009

I bought a chocolate brownie recently that was one month out of date. One whole month. I got a refund from the coffee shop and didn't think much more about it.

What I should have done was report it to my local Environmental Health Officer. As portrayed in RTE reality show, The Enforcers (Thursday, RTE1, 8.30pm), these are the guys and gals who brave the heat of the kitchen to protect consumers from bad food safety practices.

Philip Devenish, the Environmental Health Officer (EHO) who agrees to let me shadow him for a day, carries nothing more menacing than a green notebook and an inquisitive air -- but he makes grown men nervous.

Our first port of call is at 8am to a small food manufacturer in northwest Dublin.

"This is nerve-wracking for me," confesses the fast-talking owner. I am handed my deeply unflattering uniform for the factory floor inspection: white overcoat, hairnet, bright blue plastic bootees.

To my untrained eye, the facility looks impeccably clean. Philip hones straight in on a broken plastic lid that sits on a vast vat of stewed fruit -- plastic debris could easily fall unnoticed into the mush.

Foreign objects are the bane of the food safety complaint system. By the time a consumer brings in an object, as happened recently in Philip's area when a man claimed his mouth was cut by glass in a sandwich, the food has been thrown away. When proof is impossible, prevention is preferable.

I have a nose about in a giant flour bin, while Philip asks more pertinent questions about labelling and use-by dates. He pops his head into the staff bathroom for good measure. "You can tell a lot about a business from its toilets," he nods sagely. These ones are spotless.

Our next client is another matter. We're off to meet up with a mobile catering van, or 'chuck wagon'.

The van we are looking for whizzes past on the other side of the road as we sit at traffic lights. Philip notes the driver/owner is wearing disposable gloves while driving. "I hope he's not preparing food with the same gloves," he muses.

We do a quick U-turn when the light goes green -- I'm secretly hoping for a 'chuck wagon' chase that doesn't materialise as our target pulls into an industrial estate.

The driver greets us with bravado. He has already set up shop and has a line of hungry shift workers waiting for breakfast rolls.

There are lots of sausage-related cracks from his customers as Philip inserts his digital temperature probe into the meat products sizzling under the hot grill. But Philip is not smiling as he delivers his results: "Your fridge needs to be colder, and your hot box needs to be hotter".

The owner has an answer for everything -- his own thermometer was "definitely working an hour ago", but not now, when Philip tests it. He has ordered the new water tap that Philip suggested on his last visit, but it's not come in yet.

Philip probes along the edge of the floor covering -- an EHO spends a lot of time peering into nooks and crannies -- and emerges with a finger dripping with dark grease.

"My mother blitzes the van every Friday," the owner protests, "but she's away for two weeks."

Philip is a skilled diplomat: he offers advice and guidelines, and tries to understand the limitations of the van operation. "The guys we called into earlier are in food by trade," explains Philip later, "but some people are in food by default."

This issue of inexperienced caterers has become more urgent in recent months as people with redundancy money attempt to set up their own small businesses with no previous expertise. "They need a lot of support and guidance," he says.

So much for the stereotype of the EHO roaming the streets baying for businesses to shut down.

"A few younger colleagues might have that 'I am the law' swagger," says Philip. "We're generally doing our best to keep businesses open -- we want the food industry to thrive."

On the other hand, he notes, 'light touch' regulation doesn't work. The rapid response to the recent pork dioxins scare here is reassuring. In previous Scottish and Welsh E.coli scares -- a little boy died in the Welsh one in 2005 -- the root of the problem was traced back to too-lenient supervision of certain butchers' shops and abattoirs.

Philip occasionally encounters the kind of aggression I thought was reserved for vehicle clampers and lawyers. In a recent battle with a repeat offender, Philip felt lucky to be accompanied by a much more solidly-built colleague.

"The owner started to get overheated, and I'm of, well, smaller stature, so I think having this tall guy with me helped! He backed down," he smiles.

"I've had one allegation of racism," he adds, "As in: 'You're only picking on me because I'm such-and-such'."

There are language problems with some foreign national food workers, and a number of food safety courses are now targeted at helping such businesses understand their requirements.

"Foodstuffs being reportioned from larger bags without proper labelling is a problem," says Philip.

Then there are the bizarre finds -- a colleague of Philip's recently came across a bag of goat heads, skin and teeth intact, in one inner city shop.

We have no aggression on today's round. All of the food businesses we visit know we are coming -- Philip had to pre-arrange appointments because he is being accompanied by a flat-footed member of the public, ie, me.

So there are no mouse droppings to note -- all have their pest control reports up to date. "Although that's no guarantee," says Philip, who remembers one shop where cereal boxes had been badly gnawed.

Then there was the pub that had rat poison scattered like birdseed across the floor of a back room. "They also claimed they weren't serving food -- the kitchen was in bits -- but I found whole slabs of meat hanging in a cold room."

Philip has only seen live rats on one occasion in his 10 years in the job. On foot of a tip-off, he arrived an hour before opening time at a small food business to watch bread rolls being delivered and left on the pavement. The rats arrived shortly afterwards to feast on them. "When the owner arrived to open up, all she did was clap her hands to chase the rats away. When I followed her inside, she was picking out the rolls that hadn't been chewed on, for later use."

Thankfully, we don't have a big cockroach problem -- yet. "There have been cases of the eggs being laid in the seams in hessian sacks of rice and then hatching here," he says.

Yet Philip has no problems eating out on his own time. When we stop for lunch in a canteen, the toilets are closed but there are some available in a building across the way, so he lets it go. "I have selective blindness on my day off," he says wryly.

The afternoon rolls on with visits to a wildly varying range of premises. Among the 150 businesses on Philip's visit list, he has supermarkets, hotels, foodstores, pubs, restaurants, takeaways, delis, chippers and catering trucks.

The striking commonality is how much paperwork the businesses -- big or small -- are required to keep. Core temperatures of food and storage facilities have to be taken at all points along the journey from delivery to plate.

One young chef in a pub restaurant we visit seems to be swimming in sheafs of paper, but reluctantly agrees that it means he can keep track of how efficiently his fridges are working -- and argue for a new one from the owner.

A chip shop run by a charming Italian-Irish family is so clean I would eat a battered cod off their floor, but even they are encouraged to keep better track of the temperatures of their frozen food.

"It's to protect yourself," urges Philip. How right he is -- we call to a counter-top deli on foot of a public complaint of food poisoning and they are able to produce a massive paper trail that follows their chicken from farm to baguette.

But danger is everywhere apparently: Philip spots a tray of lettuce sitting out 'at ambient' (room temperature). "Listeria can grow on salad," he warns.

At the end of the day -- horror stories included -- I'm somewhat reassured about the back rooms of the food industry. If EHOs make a business owner nervous, it's because they are doing their job properly and protecting us all: industry and consumers.

It also gives me cause to think about the bag of spinach leaves I left out on my kitchen counter at home. I keep that to myself.


Tuesday June 30 2009

* The work of the Environmental Health Officer has a broad scope. As well as food control monitors like Philip Devenish, EHOs also work in these areas: water monitoring, cosmetics control, tobacco control, housing, port health (monitoring food imports), childcare facilities, infectious diseases, air pollution, noise pollution, pest control, poisons control, hygiene education.
* EHOs are employed by the Health Safety Executive (HSE), and their reports make them the "eyes and ears" of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI). Records of prosecutions, closure, enforcement and improvement orders can be accessed by any member of the public on www.fsai.ie
* Even though an EHO can close down a business if there is a "grave and immediate danger to public health", under the 1998 Food Safety Act, there are generally a number of steps a business goes through before they are shut down. The business gets an Improvement Notice for non-compliance with food safety legislation, and then an Improvement Order -- issued by a district court -- if they don't comply with the notice. If this order is ignored, then a Closure Order can be served without further warning.

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