Dr Pamela Byrne is no stranger to the food regulatory environment. An expert in risk assessment and food safety management at both national and international levels, senior positions in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine were followed by her becoming Director of Regulatory Policy and Intelligence with Abbott Nutrition before taking the FSAI post.
The Cork native comes well qualified too: PhD in Environmental Technology from UCC, MSc in Aquatic Resource Management from London’s Kings College, BSc in Zoology from UCC and a Higher Diploma in Environmantal Law from University of Aberystwyth, Wales.
“There are about 50,000 food business in Ireland of which 46,000 are subject to inspections by EHOs within the HSE,” explains Pamela of the FSAI’s work, “Of this 46,000, there are some 28,000 food service units of which 5,500 are pubs. We risk profile these businesses, going into them and working with them in terms of profiling risk on different types of activities, customers served with food or just alcohol (or both); based on that profile we’ll then determine the frequency of inspections necessary to comply with the legislation.
“Most of the time those inspections are 18 months to two years apart which would come under Category 5 or ‘relatively low risk’ in the case of publicans.”
The activities being undertaken determine the frequency of inspection.
“Having looked at the numbers over the last three years, I can say that of 5,500 pubs about 20% were non-compliant which is good in comparison to some of the other sectors,” she says.
EHO Inspections – inconsistency of approach
An ongoing point of friction between the hospitality industry and the FSAI is that of unannounced inspections – not that they take place unannounced, but that the HSE inspectors contracted by the FSAI to carry these out are inconsistent in their approach, claims the industry.
She’s well aware of the deep disgruntlement.
“We’ve work ongoing with EHOs at the moment around the consistency of enforcement inspections” she says, “and we’re scheduled to meet some of the hospitality associations in the coming months to understand a bit more about some of the challenges these businesses face in engaging with their EHOs.
“We identified the fact that we need to be much clearer,” she explains, “But our strategic organisational vision remains ‘Safe and Trustworthy Food For Everyone’.
“Now we also realise that we can’t provide this in isolation; first and foremost we must protect consumers, but to create the standard of excellence necessary we must work in collaboration with everyone from post-farmgate to retail.
“I’d like to promote the message that if there are difficulties in the system then let’s remove them because the contribution this sector makes to the tourism image is strong.
“It’s important that when tourists come to Ireland they’ve a good experience and when going into pubs, restaurants or hotels and interacting with the people working there they’re provided with a high quality, high standard of service. But underpinning all this is the safety of the food they’re providing for consumers.
“That’s why we have the Food Service Forum of which the VFI and RAI are members.”
The FSAI engages with the industry in a number of different ways. The Food Safety Consultative Council, a statutory body set up under legislation to advise it and provide it with the opportunity to engage with key stakeholders in the industry, is being renewed this year after five years.
“We’re in the process of identifying new members.”
The FSAI also has direct contact with a number of companies who it engages with via its advice line or who come to it requiring information.
“We carried out a consultation on our corporate strategy and went to the public for this,” she says, “The advice line is particularly important. If people want to use it to make a complaint, we’re happy to hear that. Last year we’d 10,500 calls to the advice line. There were 3,000 complaints from consumers while inspectors themselves and businesses who wanted advice accounted for the rest.”
Many in the industry believe that IS340 should be adopted by the EHOs as a guidance document on inspections.
“IS340 is part of how we roll out the inspection system,” she insists, “Many of the businesses work towards compliance with this so EHOs take this into account at the time of inspection. If a business is compliant with this IS there should be very little that they’re not doing! We reference this in our own guidance.”
This NSAI standard is agreed by a consultative committee and requires the engagement of all key stakeholders.
“It’s not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ but we’ve produced guidance which takes account of this IS.”
The Guidance Note on the website is available for download.
This NSAI document was updated only last year and she understands that they’re currently working on some amendments to it.
If a business fails to address any non-compliance following an inspection then an Enforcement Order is issued.
“But when a Closure Order is issued” she emphasises, “it’s due to a grave and immediate danger to public health or where there are a number of ongoing breaches of food law.”
UK’s ‘Scores on the Doors’ approach
Would the FSAI consider the ‘Scores on the Doors’ approach being taken in the UK where a rating of one to five is awarded a premises depending on its level of compliance and which must be put at the entrance to the outlet?
Alas, it’s a no.
“Under the FSAI Act, we’re legally obliged to notify the public of any Enforcement Order taken out,” she tells me, “But where no Enforcement Order is issued there’s legislation in place that prevents us from taking a ‘Scores on the Doors’ approach. Under SI 117 of 2010 we’re prohibited from disclosing any information on the detail of such inspections.”
However Enforcement Orders represent something entirely different. To date it has taken a Freedom of Information request to obtain details of Enforcement Orders but things are likely to change soon, says Pamela who hopes to have details around such Orders up online before the end of the year.
Elsewhere in Europe
Finally, others in the industry believe that while we’re working under the same regulations as everyone else in Europe, countries like Spain & Portugal experience a more relaxed application of these same laws.
Some have been asking why Ireland is interpreting the legislation so much more harshly?
“The legislation is based on the importance of good quality and high standards of food in Ireland,” she points out, “I say that this is a good thing. It’s that strict enforcement of the legislation that allows us to stand over the superior quality of the food and drink in Ireland.
“The sector has a valuable and significant contribution to make to the Irish economy as the Irish brand crosses the globe. We have to be able to demonstrate that we’ve high standards and that we strive for excellence here at home. We should applaud ourselves for having strong enforcement of the regulations. It’s important to continue to maintain standards.”
The FSAI hopes to meet the hospitality industry to discuss all these issues soon.