Julie Morrice spends a day with an Environmental Health inspector to find out the truth behind the food
Food-poisoning has crept out of the grimy underworld and onto the newstands. Public confidence in the system which produces. distributes and serves up our daily comestibles is at an all-time low. From chemical sprays to unhygienic kitchens. there seems to be an army of forces massed against safe eating. The protectors of the nation's alimentary canals are the District Councils‘ Environmental Health Departments: hm ’ effective can they be in the current crisis‘.’
The standard uniform for an Environmental Health Officer seems to be a smart suit worn with a Barbour jacket: a step upmarket from the anorak to distinguish them from the bailiffs. perhaps. Six of these imposing figures are responsible for keeping a watchful eye on the 4300 premises. at the last count. which serve food to the Edinburgh public. ‘We‘re stretched to do everything we would like to do‘. admits (iraham Walker. Principal Officer. The department would like to visit those restaurants.
shops. ta which it judges to be ‘high risk” at least a couple of times a year.
A visit from the Environmental Health comes without warning. A man. or increasingly a woman. will simply turn up and ask to inspect your sink. open your fridge and look into your toilets. Environmental Health is all about details: noticing there is no soap in a basin or that a fridge temperature is too high. Accompanying (iraham Walker on a routine visit. I was surprised that even in an apparently spotless establishment trouble was looming. He approved double sinks. stainless steel surfaces and good ventilation. but the hot water in the wash hand basins wasn’t working properly and in the fridge a plastic bag full of raw mince was lurking menacineg above a cold meat pie.
Such slip-ups may seem minor. but reading the food hygiene handbook issued by the Scottish Health Education Group made it seem miraculous that any of us survive the threat represented by dirty wiping cloths. flies. thawing food and all the other carriers of .S‘ulmmzr'lla. (.‘lostridizmz per/ringth and Slaphy/ocuccm uureus‘.
All five major outbreaks of food-poisoning in-‘the city last year were caused by the same mistakes. says (‘olin Sibbald who works in the Communicable Diseases section of the Environmental Health Department. The recurring mistakes
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are the failure to exercise proper
standards of temperature control. and cross-contamination through the failure to properly separate different stages of food preparation. Basic good kitchen practice is normally enough to prevent food-poisoning. or at the very least to limit it to a very small number ofcases but. as (iraham Walker put it. ‘lfyou're running a business and margins are slim. the last thing you're going to do is spend money on a cleaner“. While Environmental I lealth Officers have the power to close premises. the emphasis is on advice and training rather than punishment: “l'here wert maybe half a dozen prosecutions in Edinburgh last year". says Walker. ‘we'll close somewhere if it‘s infested by rats or mice. or cockroaches. or if it‘s very dirty. It's got to be pretty bad’.
The salmonella and listeria scares which have unsettled the first months of 1%") ( Year of(‘elebration for Food and Farming) have had their effect: ’We’ve definitely had an increase in complaints over the last couple of months.” said (iraham Walker. '()ne ofthe good things about this furore is that it has tnade people more aware of the dangers'. Walker feels that the public is often too trusting. particularly when it comes to food produced by companies with a household name. He sees centralised ‘cook-cltill' methods of food production. as used by fast-food outlets. as potentially
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the biggest threat to health. ‘It‘s rare for a restaurant to prepare on the premises all the food it serves. Food prepared in advance is what causes most food-poisoning.' he says. The problem is increased by the Food Hygiene Regulations which date from 195‘) and are ‘totally out of date'. and the fact that all too often the problem originates further back in the food chain. Environmental Health Departments are also responsible for abattoirs and for checking food arriving in this country. but spot-checks cannot guarantee safety: ‘It‘s like the .\l()'l‘:' says ( iraham Walker. 'whcn \\ e inspect it‘s wonderful. the next day it could be terrible.’ The department never issue certificates or write letters approving standards of hygiene which could change frotn one week to the next.
()f the 4 l 2 cases of food-poisoning reported in lidinburgh last year. only 42 were not caused by Salmonella: listeria accounted for less than half of one per cent of reported cases. (Reported eases probably represent less than 10’} ofactual cases). While the (iovernment has put the onus on the housewife to ensure that cooking methods eradicate all possible causes of infection. (iraham Walker believes that we have the right to expect cooked food to be free from contamination: but. he says with (‘urrie-like cquanimity "all raw food is likely to be contaminated with bacteria’.
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62 The List 24 February — 9 March