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Why food safety should come first

Posted: 1 September 2017 | | No comments yet

Any food producer will know that retailers and hospitality businesses that sell and serve food hold great responsibility as the face of the food industry. In this article NFU Mutual’s Darren Seward explains why they have a duty to fulfil their obligations to consumers as a trustworthy source to purchase safe, hygienic, and legitimate food, and use suppliers that they can trust to uphold their reputation.

Food safety testing check

Customer-facing businesses seek providers they can depend upon, and manufacturers will know all too well the importance of building strong, reliable relationships with the outlets that they supply to, as well as the repercussions of any breach of trust.

In a recent study, NFU Mutual asked owners of hospitality and retail businesses what they consider to be the top risks to the future of their company. Perhaps unsurprisingly, competition and industry changes, and regulation and legislation came out as the principal concerns, followed closely by damage to reputation.1

One such regulation is food hygiene. Just as food manufacturers adhere to the Food Safety Act and European Commission’s General Food Law Regulation, any business that serves or sells food such as supermarkets, convenience stores, restaurants, pubs, cafes, takeaways, hotels, schools and hospitals2 must adhere to the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) Food Hygiene Ratings Scheme. Establishments that do not supply food direct to consumers such as primary producers and transporters are excluded from the scope.

Food safety officers inspect premises unannounced, later providing a hygiene rating score between 0 (urgent improvement required) and 5 (very good) based on factors including how hygienically the food is handled, the condition and structure of the buildings, and how the business manages what it does to make sure food is safe. The scheme is designed to raise standards of food safety, reduce food-related illnesses and allow consumers to make informed judgement about where to buy their food.

Importantly, the success of the scheme has been a catalyst for further change, with possible unintended implications for food manufacturers as Britain increases its focus on food hygiene and safety.

National Differences

On 7 October 2016, changes to legislation in Northern Ireland made it compulsory for businesses serving and selling food to display food hygiene ratings in a prominent place, such as the windows, door or entrance path. The same legislation was also applied in Wales in November 2013. While official outcomes in Northern Ireland haven’t yet been shared, the Deputy Health Minister for Wales announced the scheme as a ‘big success story for Wales, helping to drive up standards’ – so much so that the number of businesses with the highest rating of 5 ‘very good’ has risen to 60.8% in November 2016 from 45% prior to the legislation coming into force.3 While Scotland uses a different scheme – the Food Hygiene Information Scheme – similarly each food outlet is asked to display a certificate and/or a sticker on their door or window, stating whether they have passed their hygiene inspection, or whether improvement is required.4

The same rules have not yet been applied in England. However, within the Food Standards Agency’s strategy for 2015-2020, it is highlighted that they favour extending mandatory display of food hygiene ratings at food outlets to England, and have been gathering evidence to inform a case to present to the Government for consideration.5 Therefore the possibility of legislation for food outlets to display food hygiene ratings in a prominent place could also apply in England in the near future, possibly as soon as 2019, if not earlier.6

Protecting the interests of farmers, food manufacturers and retail and hospitality businesses is at the heart of our business at NFU Mutual. We wanted to explore the impact that this new legislation might have upon the industries which we serve, and commissioned our Food Hygiene Ratings Report research paper to determine how retailers, caterers and the food industry as a whole could best prepare for a change.

Our research found that getting a good food hygiene rating is extremely important to a business’ reputation; so much so that that only 1 in 20 people would not be influenced by food hygiene ratings. Food hygiene is so significant that even customer loyalty cannot prevail against it – a huge 38% of people said that if a favourite food store or outlet had scored 3 out of 5 ‘generally satisfactory’ rating or less, they would stop visiting altogether. 44% would simply turn away and try somewhere else.7

At the time of publishing our report in Spring 2017, there were almost 65,500 retail and hospitality businesses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland holding food hygiene ratings of 3 or less that could be directly affected by potential and existing loyal customers physically turning away from their door (Food Hygiene Information Scheme ratings used in Scotland are not directly comparable). To put the scale of the problem in context – that is almost one in every seven relevant businesses in the UK8, around 60,000 of which are located in England specifically.

This figure is also likely to cause further alarm for businesses scoring a 3 or less when also aligned with data that shows the vast majority of people (80%) are currently unaware of – or not actively seeking – the food hygiene ratings for their favourite food outlets. While some visitors may currently be complacent, the introduction of compulsory displays of ratings is likely to provide an awakener for customers to think more carefully about their purchase decisions.

Concerns

Given this knowledge, it could be expected that any changes to the way that food hygiene ratings function may raise some concern amongst retail and hospitality businesses, and the ricochet effect could also drive up even further the standards expected from producers. Additionally and perhaps most importantly, if the legislation comes into effect, consumers will become more predisposed to using food safety and hygiene as a differentiator or factor in their purchase decisions at retail and hospitality businesses. It begs the question, is there is potential for a knock-on effect in how consumers might demand transparency through the entire production line, and will manufacturers feel the change?

Aside from keeping people safe, food manufacturers already have good reason to ensure their hygiene and safety measures are up to scratch and this is just one element of the bigger picture for food safety. There are also so many other pressures which dictate the safety and quality standards of the food produced, including the regulations put in place by large supermarkets and wholesalers, which require suppliers to be approved under schemes such as the British Retail Consortium Global Standard, and Safe and Local Supplier Approval (SALSA).

However, the public may increasingly wish to see quality stamps of assurance or information about safety online, and sellers may ask questions about producer’s safety procedures, or request to see supply chain management and food safety records. It is extremely important that producers ensure their policies are watertight to meet the challenge if it arises.

Implementing robust safety awareness and issue prevention programmes across the entire employee network and for every customer touchpoint should be at the core of every business’ strategy. Know your suppliers and make sure they have a comprehensive food safety and defence strategy. Request to see their supply chain vulnerability assessments and ask yourself whether you have confidence in them. Aside from hygiene and these steps can also help to combat against food fraud, a topic we are also exploring and providing advice on in our upcoming NFU Mutual Food Fraud Report launching on September 5 2017.

Of course it is not only reputation that can be affected by poor food hygiene and any good manufacturer should also have a sense of their duty of care. Failing obligations to safeguard the health of customers can also come with a hefty price tag when faced with a public liability claim, a health and safety dispute or a product recall issue, that could even put a business out of action if adequate insurance is not in place.

Retail

Retailers and hospitality businesses are likely to feel at the mercy of food producers to mitigate risk of product recall incidents, especially given that they too have a duty to ensure that the food they sell is legitimate and safe, and they are not immune to the reputational consequences of not doing so. Product recall procedures naturally take a much greater priority in manufacturing and retail than in catering, because of the potential for greater geographical distribution of that product together with the volumes of food produced. It is vital that a manufacturer is able to trace back to the suppliers of ingredients and produce full details of distribution routes for specific products. In being able to do this, labelling and identification of that product must hold sufficient detail and be clear. A manufacturer should find out whether its own suppliers have product recall insurance, as it can cost millions to get products off the shelves quickly and pay the legal fees.

Specific controls required vary dramatically depending on the food produced and nature of the process, however one certain area of common ground is that the proper upkeep and maintenance of machinery, and regular risk management assessments, are vital in mitigating the risk of problems with equipment that can lead to safety issues in food.

Regardless of their size, all producers should ensure that they have access to the right expertise to be able to develop a food safety management system based on hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) principles, and that they can apply this specifically to the food safety risks present within their unique process. Where necessary, a business should be prepared to involve other people with specialist knowledge on a range of subjects such as equipment, packaging and microbiology. We place great importance on this and even have a dedicated risk management services team to assist our clients on these areas. The Food Standards Agency also have a tool called MyHACCP, which is aimed at small manufacturers and may be useful for those just starting out. 

The most important thing is that all food manufacturers continue to prioritise food safety beyond simply meeting the required quality standards, to uphold their place in a competitive market as the demands of consumers evolve.

References

The Food Hygiene Ratings Report research was conducted by research agency ICM Unlimited in November 2016, using a demographically representative split across Great Britain, and surveyed 2016 people.

  1. Qualitative research conducted with Charterhouse Research for NFU Mutual in February 2016
  2. FSA Hygiene Ratings Schemes food.gov.uk/multimedia/hygiene-rating-schemes/ratings-find-out-more-en/fhrs
  3. Welsh Government Newsroom http://gov.wales/newsroom/health-and-social-services/2015/151128food-hygiene/?lang=en
  4. Food Hygiene Information Scheme Scotland foodstandards.gov.scot/food-safety-standards/food-safety-hygiene/food-hygiene-information-scheme
  5. FSA Impact Assessment food.gov.uk/news-updates/help-shape-our-policies/impact-mandatory-display-ratings-england
  6. Media interview with FSA director conveniencestore.co.uk/news/stores-face-mandatory-display-of-food-hygiene-scores/543637.article
  7. Figures exclude those who still see the maximum rating as unacceptable and those who wouldn’t be influenced by ratings at all
  8. According to the Food Standards Agency website search tool on 20/01/17 there were 60,550 businesses in England with a rating of 3 or less, out of 424,123 in England in total, equal to 14.27% or almost 1 in 7 businesses. Also according to the FSA tool on 20/01/17, there were 28,807 businesses in Wales in total, and 15,719 businesses in Northern Ireland in total. Businesses with a rating of 3 or less totalled 3,861 for Wales and 1,039 for Northern Ireland. Therefore combined, 4,900 out of 44,526 businesses in the Wales and NI had a score of 3 or less – 11% or almost 1 in 9 businesses. Therefore the total number of businesses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland with a rating of three or less is 65,450, out of a total 468,649, equal to 13.96% or almost 1 in 7 businesses. Scotland uses a different scheme to the Food Hygiene Ratings Scheme called the Food Hygiene Information Scheme, with incomparable rating measures for the purposes of the study foodstandards.gov.scot/food-safety-standards/food-safety-hygiene/food-hygiene-information-scheme

About the author

Darren SewardDarren Seward is Hospitality and Food and Drink Specialist at NFU Mutual. Darren has over 30 years’ experience, with expertise in both hospitality and food and drink manufacturing. He particularly enjoys the link between the two – from quality produce to the dining table. When not working, he can often be found under the bonnet of his classic Range Rovers.

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