Is the FSAI a Force for Good or Evil?

Is the FSAI a Force for Good or Evil?

Who is policing the food police?

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The FSAI recently came down hard on McDonald's, whose use of the term 'artisan' for their new McMór burger was widely criticised.

In a month where the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) did the world some good by forcing McDonald’s to change the description of their McMór burger to remove the word “Artisan,” we here at FFT have been looking a little closer at FSAI practices.

Are they a force for good or evil?  Do we want the toughest food police in the world, or do we want to have high quality food from small producers?  Full disclosure: I personally believe the two are incompatible under the current FSAI regime.

I spoke to Ray Ellard, Director of Consumer Protection at the FSAI, and he was very forthcoming.

“We employ 80 people to organise and police the food sector.  Assessments are based on risk alone, the bigger the risk the harder we police,” he said.

He argues strongly that artisan producers are treated differently.  “We do not visit artisan producers as often as big business, we have an artisan forum, as we do for retailers, and we try to listen to their concerns – in fact we need to listen to them.  We have a formal mechanism for them to air their concerns and I believe it works.  We do listen,” he insists.

“The FSAI are aiming to be the toughest cops in the toughest police force in the world! - Who wouldn’t want this reputation?”
“The FSAI is aiming to be the toughest cops in the toughest police force in the world.” Anonymous Artisan Producer

It is tough to argue with this and I believe Ray was telling the truth, they do not want to damage any business.  However, let me take an example where I believe the FSAI does do damage.

If your premises has rats and a closure order is issued, provided you remove the rats and are allowed to re-open, that closure order notice is removed within three months from the FSAI site.  Product recall press releases stay there forever – yes they slip down the press release list, but only if there are more recalls.  Do producers who have had voluntary recalls now hope and pray for the misfortune of others?

Product recall press releases also go for maximum effect and use phrases like “Severe bloody diarrhoea and abdominal cramps,” and references to “Kidney failure”.  Yet often these recalls are voluntary and prove to be false alarms, but of course no “All clear” press release is ever issued.

Ellard responds: “It is only batches that get recalled, the companies are not told to stop production.  Companies do not come back to us on issues like this, most accept that these things happen and it’s dealt with and is done and dusted.”

Ellard also spoke to me about raw milk.  “We pasteurise milk to prevent people getting sick and that has worked very well.  The pathogens in raw milk can cause illness.  The basic principle of EU food law is that you cannot sell a product that is unsafe.  What is the safest thing to do?”

He concludes:

We advise strongly against raw milk consumption, but people are adults and can make their own decisions.

Kevin Sheridan is a director of Sheridans Cheesemongers and Chairs the Taste Council of Ireland; he has concerns about the current FSAI methodology and about the future of food safety protection in Ireland.

“It’s about the word value – How much do we value our Artisan Producers, our raw milk, our raw cheeses – do we value them as much as big business? I think few would draw that conclusion,”
“It’s about the word value. How much do we value our Artisan Producers? Our raw milk? Our raw cheeses? Do we value them as much as big business? I think few would draw that conclusion”. Kevin Sheridan, Sheridans Cheesemongers & Chair of the Taste Council of Ireland”

“This is about judgement and ‘risk to value’ assessments.  Cars have a high risk for passengers and pedestrians yet we take that risk.  The ‘establishment’ values large industry so we allow large industry to sell mass produced chicken with 80% campylobacter – the leading cause of food poisoning.  Regarding raw milk – the FSAI does not value raw milk so no risk is acceptable,” says Sheridan.

“In France they value the products so they approach testing in a different way while still protecting the public.  If no value is seen in raw milk cheese how could they be motivated to care about the damage done to the product or producer?” he continues.

More worryingly, Sheridan believes the new genetic testing techniques which are likely to be introduced “May well lead to the death of raw milk cheese if the Irish and Dutch proposals hold sway over those of the French and others”.

“Bottom line is, there should be different criteria for small producers who supply small numbers of people.  They cannot cause a nuclear bomb effect like the large processors, where dozens of producers’ ingredients get mixed together causing ripples around the world,” said Kevin.

I agree with Kevin that change is needed, but first let’s look briefly at how we got here.

I looked at the board members of FSAI and all of them have impressive sounding titles such as “Professor of Chemistry”, “Professor of Food and Health”, “Professor of Public Health” plus of course an obligatory “communications” expert that used to work for Mary Harney, plus a Barrister.

Not one of these people has ever been an actual food producer.  That is at the top, at the other end – no EHO ever spends time working in food production.  I asked Ray Ellard,

Why don’t EHOs do work experience at producers as part of their training?

His blunt answer came thusly:

They just don’t at the moment.

I have been told that an EHO’s first lecture in college is on the huge benefits pasteurisation brought to the world.  How could this organisation ever be in favour of raw milk as a product for healthy adults?

Nothing will change until EHO education is re-assessed and the culture of mistrust of food engendered by the FSAI is changed across society.  We need to assess what we actually value in our food culture.  It is not the FSAI, or large pork and chicken producers, that get flown to the Milan Expo to show off Ireland.  No, it is artisan heroes like Birgitta Hedin Curtin of the Burren Smokehouse and Peter Ward of Country Choice.

Who would you rather be represented by and what are Ireland’s future prospects as a globally respected gastronomic nation if the current set of circumstances are allowed to prevail?