I have just delivered a couple of training courses on vacuum packing safety to Environmental Health Officers (EHOs - UK’s local inspection teams), with colleague Sandra Moore. Talking to them about their day-to-day experiences, I have nothing but respect for the work that they do at the coalface of food safety. Many of the premises they visit don’t have the benefit of being able to employ dedicated technical staff (according to UK’s Food and Drink Federation, 96% of food business are SME (https://www.fdf.org.uk/statsataglance.aspx), and while this gap could be met by consultants, there is also a reticence for new or small businesses to invest in food safety help (and it should be seen as an investment).
Within this context, EHOs need to make food safety assessments on practices and premises where they may not always have the objective evidence to make and communicate a risk-based decision; the ability to submit samples for testing is limited by budgetary constraints and scientific studies may not be available or communicated well.
An example: attendees asked about the evidence behind the requirement for separate vacuum packing machines for ready-to-eat (RTE) and non-RTE foods. As a past chair of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) E.coli cross-contamination guidance committee, I could point them at Campden BRI research demonstrating contamination could get into vacuum bags as well as external surfaces (http://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/multimedia/pdfs/science-research/campden-ecoli-alt-controls-report.pdf). Armed with this sort of information, EHOs can feel more confident in turning the often grey world of scientific uncertainty into black and white decisions on the ground.
But I am worried that these front-line troops don’t have the time and resources to find and translate what evidence there is available into an understanding useful for their work, let alone to generate new data. Does the FSA play a good enough role in this in the UK? How else is this being done and can we do it better? These heroes need our support – I’m currently putting that support down as a 1 but please let me know if I need to revise my rating.