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Lions in freezers, E.coli outbreaks and protecting the public - 6 questions answered by food hygiene expert

14 August 2018

HOT on the heels of our lean (and squeaky clean) guide to what food hygiene ratings actually mean, we bring you this interview with Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council's recently-appointed Environmental Health Service Manager, Steve Donaghy.

Image of Food hygiene rating with Lions

Steve has 21 years' experience working in both large scale food manufacturing and prior to joining Stockton was the Environmental Enforcement Manager for the London Borough of Wandsworth.

We asked him about his experiences of all things food hygiene over the years...

What is the most common breach in takeaways/restaurants?

The most common breaches we find are structural breaches such as cracked floor tiles or damaged surfaces, yet they actually post the least risk in terms of health. Cleaning offences are probably second, followed by lack of an effective Food Safety Management System.

With cleaning offences it's usually around basic hand washing and people lacking the appropriate knowledge and equipment to carry out an effective 'double clean', which effectively means cleaning something twice.

Our officers do a lot of work to educate businesses about effective cleaning methods, such as doing a 'double clean' with hot water and using detergent, single use cloths and disposable paper towels. This should be followed up with the use of an approved cleaning chemical - you're looking for ones that meet BS EN 1276 and 13697 standards. And it's really important to given the chemical enough time, or 'contact time' as we call it, to work before wiping it away.

We do this at each premises in line with the Food Standards Agency's E.coli guidance and we find it's absolutely critical in helping them to minimise the risk of cross contamination in caterers handling both raw and 'ready to eat' products.

What is the least common breach of the rules/regulations?

Fortunately, an active pest infestation is what we see least. I say fortunately because this kind of breach carries the highest risk when it comes to the potential of transmission of infection. Although such cases are rare, when we do find them they are the ones that result in closures and formal action being taken.

As for the least common breach I've ever come across, a colleague in another part of the country once came back from a food hygiene inspection having found the body of a dead lion in a restaurant freezer!

Without naming premises, what was the worst inspection ever undertaken by an officer and what was found?

No single premises stands out as being much worse than others. At the end of the day, any premises that is closed is equally as significant as others in that it poses an imminent risk to health.

The most disappointing and frustrating thing for most Environmental Health Officers is when you're doing your best to protect public health while also being fair to a business so you agree a voluntary closure with them, only to find that the business has then continued to trade.

Fortunately this is very rare indeed but when it does happen, we can serve an emergency notice to stop them from trading. What's also encouraging is that the courts take a very dim view of any business which openly disregards public health by trading under a voluntary closure.

Conversely, what was the best inspection or the biggest improvement seen in a restaurant/takeaway?

Again no individual premises stands out as all premises in which you can see an improvement in standards or knowledge is hugely satisfying. It's rewarding to see a business succeed and know that you are providing a service that helps protect public health and also helps responsible businesses do well. We have had so many success stories and with 98% of the Borough's food premises compliant with food law, this is borne out statistically. It compares very well nationally too.

For a bit more colour, what do they enjoy about the task of inspections the most/least?

Environmental Health Officers are there to protect public health. It's why we join the profession and we are passionate about ensuring we do our very best to educate, inform, inspect and enforce to the highest standard to prevent illness in our communities. It's a difficult job but it can also be a hugely rewarding one.

It's always very satisfying to help a premises improve how they manage food risk and officers draw huge encouragement from forming positive working relationships that bring about real and positive change because we know the effect of this will be to protect customer's health.

Without a doubt, the worst aspect of the job is the investigation of confirmed foodborne illness. Especially severe illnesses like E.coli 0157. This has a massive effect on officers when you see first-hand the sometimes life changing effect food poisoning can have on people's lives.

The vast majority of the public do not understand the health consequences of some food poisoning infections. We do everything we can to prevent food related ill health and in doing so provide protection to our local residents and visitors.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of the job?

That's an easy one - seeing business getting it right with our help and assistance. The vast majority of our time is spent educating and imparting knowledge to Food Business Operators.

There's also this perception that Environmental Health Officers aren't liked by businesses but I would say that a huge majority of premises welcome our visits and benefit from them. Not just in relation to food hygiene but also in relation to effective management of their premises.

It's great when you can strike up an effective personal relationship and that creates an environment in which you know businesses will openly ask for future advice so we all continue to keep getting food safety right in the Borough.