If, or when, the international community agrees to implement a proposal for standardised food safety requirements, emphasising the importance of safety will become something of a sink or swim issue for the entire industry. Effective food hygiene means satisfied consumers and when the patrons are happy everyone’s a winner. Deborah Griffiths of The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) takes a look at the steps taken so far towards guaranteeing food safety, and the way forward for companies willing to make safety a priority.

If you or your company are failing to put sufficient emphasis on food safety, you may be jeopardising your business. Not only could you lose your current customers, but you may also be at a serious competitive disadvantage if proposed food safety standardisation measures come into effect.

“In recent years, a number of extremely serious outbreaks of food-borne disease have occurred on virtually every continent, demonstrating both the public health and social significance of food-borne disease. Globalisation of food trade presents a trans-national challenge to food safety control agencies in that food can become contaminated in one country and cause outbreaks of food-borne illness in another. The intensification of food production and the consolidation of the food industries present opportunities for food-borne pathogens to infect large numbers of consumers,” states WHO Director-General, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland in the WHO document, Food Safety – An Essential Public Health Issue for the New Millennium.

Increased calls for enhanced food safety measures are coming from all quarters, including global health organisations, regional regulators and consumers. For example, in recent months the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have issued a joint call for countries to apply international food safety and quality standards so as to protect health and trade and restore consumer confidence.

“People have a right to food which is nutritious and safe,” said the FAO’s Hartwig de Haen in a WHO/FAO press release on Food Safety, Quality Issues distributed in July. “Agricultural producers and food processors share the responsibility to ensure that these choices are guaranteed throughout the food chain,” he continued.

The Scale of the Problem

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According to WHO, even in industrialized countries, an estimated one third of the population has a food-borne illness every year, and up to 20 people per million die. Within these figures, the WHO suggests that in the UK, 7% of the population has suffered from food poisoning, 10% in Holland, 9% in New Zealand and 10% of US residents. In the US, this equates to a staggering 9,000 deaths.

These estimates relate primarily to microbiological problems – if chemical food hazards are included, the number is even higher. Additionally, it is well recognised that many cases go un-reported; for instance, the UK government recently released figures that indicate their true level of food poisoning is probably twice that quoted by WHO, and the same could apply for all countries.

Whilst the real level of food poisoning is hard to confirm, cases of food-borne illness have certainly increased dramatically across the globe. Various factors may contribute to this, including:

  • A global food chain
  • Intensive rearing of food, crops and animals
  • Less preservatives
  • A population that includes more ‘at risk’ groups – the elderly, the young and those whose immune systems are compromised
  • Increased consumer awareness and influence
  • Higher levels of tourism and foreign travel
  • Changes in eating habits (greater reliance on re-heated foods and more meals and snacks eaten out)
  • Changes in shopping habits (more bulk-buying and greater home-storage facilities).

Not only has the marketplace altered, but the food industry has undergone changes too. Political and geographical boundaries are no longer constraints; as the USDA identifies, “Better, faster, more reliable communications and transportation systems facilitate businesses’ abilities to produce, source, and sell in the locations that give them the best advantage, even if that means operating in multiple locations around the world.” Whilst this global marketplace offers opportunities to buy and sell at the best commercial location, it also means a greater challenge for the safer sourcing, preparation and selling of food. As Dr Brundtland summarises, “In a globalised world, we all swim in a single microbial sea.”

The WHO sees a global standard as the answer to microbial hazards: “As the movement of people, trade of foods – including ingredients and food animal feeding stuffs – becomes more and more global, it turns out to be more and more difficult to solve food safety problems by one country without international collaboration and a consolidated strategy to combat problems,” Dr Brundtland prophesises.

The good news is that a global standard may not only benefit the consumer. At a Dutch conference earlier this year, Cor Groenveld, of Lloyd’s Register Quality Assurance stressed that a standard could also simplify the food trade: “Because of the growing international trading and globalisation in the food supply chains, the harmonisation of food standards becomes important. At the moment, it happens that an internationally orientated food producer has to comply with the different legislation of every country he exports to and with requirements of retailers to comply with different food standards.”

The upshot is that regulators and other interested parties around the world are now focusing on standardising food safety training and legislation.

Regional Efforts to Enhance Food Safety

1. USA:

America has the largest internal food market and the influence of its food businesses can be seen around the globe: 30 of the top 77 global food businesses are US corporations. In the US, the Conference for Food Protection (CFP) is leading the call to protect the US market’s reputation. In many states there is now a mandatory requirement for each food unit to employ a ‘food safety manager’, a certified food manager who has passed a CFP approved examination.

There are only four of these CFP approved test vendors at present and the National Registry of Food Safety Professionals (NRFSP) has developed one of these.

“The movement in the US is for more states to adopt this food safety standard. For example, states such as Florida, Massachusetts and Indiana have recently adopted the certification requirement. Even in those areas that do not mandate Food Safety Manager Certification, many food service managers become certified to obtain the professional credential for career development reasons and it shows a commitment to good practice,” explains National Registry spokesperson, Sara Demko. Importantly, the National Registry also maintains a master database of all candidates who have successfully completed the qualification, which both employers and regulators use to validate a person’s credentials (www.nrfsp.com).

2. Europe:

In 1997, the European Commission found that nearly 68% of consumers were concerned about the safety of foodstuffs and acknowledged: “There is a need to create a coherent and transparent set of food safety rules.” They plan for radical reform, including a major programme of legislation restructuring and the establishment of a new European Food Authority in 2002, considered to be “the most appropriate response to the need to guarantee a high level of food safety”.

Consequently, many European countries are preparing for the new European Food Authority’s impact. In the UK, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is focusing on reducing food-borne illness: “We are working with the catering and hospitality industry to ensure that HACCP is applied in full before it becomes a legal requirement in Europe in three to four years,” explains David Statham, Director of Enforcement and Food Standards.

The FSA has also called for better training of food outlet staff. FSA Chairman, Professor Sir John Krebs, summarises: “The first action over the next year or two is to raise the level of training, understanding and competence in business.” The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) is the main provider of both UK and international food safety qualifications and is currently in discussions with the FSA to assist in a national campaign to raise food safety awareness. CIEH food expert, Ann Goodwin comments: “Food-borne illness normally occurs because people do not know how to handle food safely. It is essential that people who prepare food for public consumption or manage the process receive training.”

3. Australasia:

Down under, standards are also being reviewed. Late last year, the Australia and New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) announced that the joint Australia – New Zealand Food Standards Code would become law and the sole food standard for Australia and New Zealand in a year’s time. ANZFA’s Managing Director, Ian Lindenmayer, said Australian and New Zealand consumers and industry had much to gain: “The Joint Code marks the beginning of a new era in food standards setting in both countries.”

He added: “The food industry now has a more workable set of standards which encourage innovation while ensuring that food is safe.”

The CIEH has many trainers in Australasia and is looking to expand across the continent. Its training is accredited with the Australian and New Zealand authorities and has been adapted specifically to meet these markets’ needs. The CIEH’s Australian office also services those delivering CIEH international food safety qualifications in Asia, although the CIEH additionally works with the Hong Kong Food Council.

The Benefits of Standardised Training

It is increasingly obvious that food safety training is seen as a great benefit to the public and industry alike in producing safer food. Some organisations campaigning for standardised, mandatory training feel that a workforce trained with recognised, certificated qualifications can help identify and prevent food safety risks and so help protect an organisation from the damaging costs of poor food hygiene. Training should help…

  1. promote consistent levels of food safety and knowledge across outlets and premises to help promote brand reputation.
  2. ensure employees are aware of safety risks.
  3. ensure a common standard of knowledge.
  4. assist authorities in verifying whether food handlers have training commensurate with their responsibilities. Food handlers who have completed formal training can be able to produce their certificates as evidence of complying with legal requirements.
  5. ensure that there is proper understanding of temperature control. Poor understanding of temperature control seems a key cause of food-borne illness. Certificated training can help to ensure a wider understanding of temperature requirements. ‘Understanding’ requires more than memorising the correct temperatures at which food should be held.
  6. raise awareness within the food industry about the causes of food-borne disease and its prevention. Voluntary approaches to educating food handlers are unlikely to achieve the high level of awareness required. Full awareness may only be achieved through mandatory training as a condition of food license/legislation.

While high standards of safety can enable consumers to enjoy food without illness, injury or other problems, poor standards can lead to all kinds of harm – and even death. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH), developers of the market’s main food safety qualifications, stresses that the stakes are high for those companies who are unable to protect their customers. The costs of poor food hygiene include:

  • Bad brand and business reputation and possible negative media coverage
  • Customer complaints and lost revenue from reduced trade
  • Increased running costs due to pests and spoiled food being thrown away
  • Poor working conditions
  • Legal action and penalties
  • Possible redundancies and close of business.

Conversely, the CIEH feel that the benefits of effective food hygiene are financially rewarding in themselves:

  • Satisfied, loyal customers
  • Good business reputation, which could lead to more contracts and trade
  • Reduced costs from less food wastage and controlled running costs
  • Compliance with legislation and avoidance of fines and penalties from enforcers, and so greater business and job security
  • A pleasant work environment.

It is no coincidence that top of the list of business benefits is customer satisfaction. The power of consumers should not be underestimated, as research undertaken at the UK’s University of Brighton reveals. It found that proprietors of a food business rarely get a second chance to make a good first impression, yet evidence suggests that many managers and supervisors in food businesses deem food hygiene as important only when something goes wrong.

Food Safety Specialist Dr Jeremy Leach stresses: “There is a real need to develop an attitude in the catering and food retail trade where managers and staff do things right because they feel it is important and good for business, not where food hygiene is something undertaken grudgingly because of the fear of an inspection or worse. I found that in many cases customers demand far higher levels of food hygiene and cleanliness than the law currently requires.”

Dr Leach’s research also found that customers expect and indeed take basic levels of food hygiene for granted. If those standards are not experienced, then the vast majority of customers will not complain but are likely to leave and will not return, leaving the business un-appraised of the perceived shortcomings. “The food industry is a service industry where the customer can still rule and many within it need to re-evaluate the priority they attach to food hygiene,” Dr Leach stressed. “Training in food hygiene is essential to motivate change through increased knowledge and understanding and this should be backed up by a supportive management culture.

“Making managers and employees aware of their legal responsibilities is essential, but their motivation to get things right and improve standards should be through a desire to attract and please customers,” he continued.

A Global Solution for Food Safety?

As the world’s leading provider of food safety qualifications, the CIEH has certificated 5 million people and is amongst those working towards the creation of an international standard. The CIEH qualifications are unusual in that any company within the food industry can use them. As such, the CIEH works with a variety of leading household brands that rely on CIEH qualifications to train their workforce, including caterers, processors, manufacturers, restaurants and retailers.

“One draw for these top brands is that CIEH certificates can be issued showing both the CIEH logo and the food company’s logo. This helps to externally demonstrate the steps that an organisation has taken to train up its employees. Another is the CIEH’s flexibility for use across the food industry, as well as an extensive range of translated material,” says the CIEH’s Gary Ince.

The CIEH is a founder member of the International Federation of Environmental Health and feels its range of food safety translated training material has benefited from its links with other public health institutes and associations across the world. “Through its key alliances, the CIEH is now to assist global business in training their workforces to a consistent standard, regardless of continent. By working with partner public health specialists, the CIEH has been able to tailor its products and materials to individual overseas markets, so that the qualifications remain relevant to candidates’ needs in relation to both local cultural influences and industry expectations. As a result, CIEH training is already accessible in centres based in over 56 countries and is expanding,” Mr Ince says. The CIEH’s translated material can be used by native speakers around the world and the aim is to enhance the student’s understanding of the course content.

According to Dee Waite, CIEH Technical and Development Manager: “Having the text in a food handler’s mother tongue helps ensure the important elements in preparing safe food are fully understood.”

This provision has necessitated significant investment for EH, as its material is professionally translated in order to achieve international recognition: for instance, the CIEH Basic Food Safety objective-test is accessible in 22 languages and its low-price front-line employee workbook currently has 20 translations and market adaptations (English, American, Australian, Bengali, traditional Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Gujarati, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, Punjabi, Spanish, Thai, Turkish, Urdu and Welsh), with more to come.

However, such commitment to accessibility and quality should reap dividends. Ian Greaves, who runs international food safety consultancy, IGI Training, explains: “The quality of presentation and relevant content is the key. Materials in various languages are much easier to obtain now, and are often not available in the country itself. The CIEH now provides a selection of its training materials in a wide range of languages, in this respect I believe the UK leads the way.”

For more information on CIEH global food safety training, contact d.griffiths@chgl.comor phone +44 (0) 20 7827 5876 or fax +44 (0) 20 7827 5832, or visit www.cieh.org.


To view related research report, please follow the link below:-

The Microbiology of Safe Food

Index to Food Additives Evaluated by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives