The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) have a mission statement on the front page of their website, that says their “principal function” is “to take reasonable steps to ensure that food produced, distributed or marketed in the State meets the highest standards of food safety and hygiene reasonably available.”
Reasonable. The problem with the word “reasonable” is that it is open to interpretation. “I think ‘unreasonable’ is more likely the word you hear in our industry,” says Adrian Cummins of the Restaurants Association of Ireland.
“The core problem we have is that each EHO [Environmental Health Officer] interprets the regulations differently and what is reasonable to one may be a closure order to another,” Cummins continues. “EHOs move around and change and it is quite common for a newly appointed EHO to demand completely different standards from their predecessor. Of course every change costs money, usually a lot.”
[quote_box_center]EHOs have “Textbook learning but virtually none have worked in food preparation so have no practical experience,” was a common complaint.[/quote_box_center]
Cummins highlights the recent horse meat scandal and how damaging it was to Ireland’s image. ”Nobody has been held to account yet every week restaurants are threatened with legal action. It is almost as if they deliberately target the small restaurant as they know that they will simply have to capitulate,” he continues.
“Italy, France or virtually any other country in Europe does not have as strict a regime as we do, yet there is supposed to be parity between our regulations,” he concludes.
In writing this article I failed to find any restaurant to talk on the record about problems they have had with their EHO – “Lest we catch the eye of Sauron” as one memorably put it, referring to the all-seeing evil eye in The Lord of the Rings.
EHOs have “Textbook learning but virtually none have worked in food preparation so have no practical experience,” was a common complaint.
Absurd anecdotes abound, such as the EHO that panicked when she heard a restaurant was planning on serving home grown potatoes. Her “reasonable” response was along the lines of “But there will be E-Coli in the soil! Would you not use the nice pre-sliced, peeled and washed ones that come in a vac-pack?!”
Another story is the fact that for a number of years it wasn’t possible to buy cheese from a market stall in the South-East as the resident EHO demanded fresh running hot water for any cheese seller, an impossible standard that was not required in other parts of Ireland and would be laughed at elsewhere in Europe.
Food trucks are an interesting case-study; the most fashionable on-trend part of foodie culture at the moment but when was the last time you saw one outside of a music festival? I know of one food truck that was passed and failed a number of times before it had even been used due to a roster of EHOs – some asking for minor alterations only for the truck to fail their next inspection from a different EHO who demanded a completely different spec.
Let’s finish for this month on chopping boards. It is scientifically proven* that wooden chopping boards harbour fewer bacteria than plastic but you won’t find an EHO that recommends swapping plastic for wooden. Shane O’Rourke of Sweeney O’Rourke Catering Supplies on Pearse St. told me that “Wood is gone almost everywhere except for butchers– even Wusthof changed the handles of their knives; it’s too late to go back now.”
*(for one study Google: Boards Dean Cliver UC Davis)