Clean sweep for hygiene regs

By Michelle Knott

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food safety, Hygiene, Hazard analysis and critical control points

New European food hygiene regulations could actually help UK manufacturers by forcing other states to come up to our high standards, says Michelle Knott

Major new European Union (EU) food hygiene legislation will come into force on January 1, 2006 as part of a sea change in food safety regulation across the community. It might seem a long way off, but for regulators, the adoption of the new rules this April marked the start of a busy time, bringing UK rules into line and drawing up guidance notes for different industrial sectors.

British food manufacturers could be forgiven for thinking that the forthcoming changes will mean more red tape, but according to leading industry advisors, the changes should be good news.

"In the UK it'll be largely business as usual. Food manufacturers are already operating significantly above the requirements of the legislation," says Chris Pratt, head of the hygiene policy and legislation unit at the Food Standards Agency (FSA). "I can't rule out a consultants' boom time, but I can't really see it's justified. It'll be broadly similar to what we've got, but clearer and more consistent."

Neil Griffiths, chairman of both the Society of Food Hygiene Technology (SoFHT) and Law Laboratories, agrees that the new regulations should simplify the legislation that many companies have to contend with. "What we've had in place are a large number of hygiene directives emerging over the past 10 or 15 years to cover a range of different sectors. At the same time we've seen the evolution of new technologies and new problems, so there was a requirement to update and consolidate the legislation."

The FSA estimates that approximately 760,000 businesses in the UK will fall under the new legislation. This includes 160,000 businesses at primary production level, such as farms and fishing vessels, and 600,000 food businesses, including caterers, retailers and manufacturers. (See the panel on p56 for a brief rundown of what's involved in the new regulations.)

It should, for the first time, put UK manufacturers on a level playing field with their competitors in Europe.

According to Griffiths, one of the questions he is most frequently asked is: "Why has the UK the nasty habit of enforcing European legislation, whereas other member states don't appear to do so?"

"If I received £10 for every time a member of the UK food industry has made this comment to me I could certainly take my family on a good holiday," he says.

For fair trade to be the norm, it is not enough to ensure that the same hygiene requirements are placed on businesses in each member state. The same level of enforcement also has to apply.

"The enforcement of European legislation across member states is not as uniform as it should be," admits Griffiths. But for manufacturers producing food from material of animal origin, help is at hand in the shape of EU regulation 882/2004, which covers the official controls to ensure compliance with feed and food law, animal health and welfare rules. As well as providing administrative and even criminal sanctions against operators who flout food safety laws, the new regulation gives the European Commission (EC) power to suspend food products from the market if the member state in which they were produced does not have a sufficiently tight control regime in place. In other words, if a state doesn't play fair, it can be thrown out of the game.

The risk-based approach that the new rules advocate will be familiar territory for major UK firms. "Larger manufacturers already have 10-15 years experience of HACCP [hazard analysis and critical control points]," says Griffiths. "It's one area where industry has led the regulators." But he cautions that smaller companies and related sectors, such as catering, will have some work to do.

Guidance notes

In terms of guidance on the new regulations, Pratt says the FSA is working to expand on the industry guides it already provides to caterers and retailers to ensure that similar guidance is available to manufacturers.

These are quite separate from the statutory guides the Agency produces for the enforcement authorities, which set out how they should operate. He says in some cases, the trade bodies may be the appropriate organisations to deliver sector-specific advice. "These are voluntary guides. Our job is to encourage industry sectors to develop them," he says.

There's no deadline in the legislation for the development of guidance and Pratt believes consultations with trade associations will probably continue long after 2006.

"The crucial thing will be staying in touch," he says. "Check the Agency's web site for the updates."

Although there is provision in the regulations for the official approval of guidance at a European level, individual countries are so far showing little interest in going down that route.

"If you take a guide into Europe it's likely to be more of a compromise, so it's less likely to serve your national needs," explains Pratt. "We'll be focusing on national guidance."

Griffiths is concerned, however, that this piecemeal approach could lead to conflicting advice. "We could end up with guides generated by national regulators, trade bodies and even individual retailers. How do you avoid the establishment of 10 different guidance notes on how to avoid foreign bodies? It needs to be properly co-ordinated."

Far from being the end of the story, the new regulations lay down general rules that will enable the development of even more controls in the future. For example, the EC is currently working on draft 10 of proposals to establish new microbiological criteria in foodstuffs.

"What's happening is a wholesale review of microbiological criteria," says Pratt. "There's no real proposal as yet, although we have seen some working documents."

Even so, he's confident that the demands of the new controls will not prove too onerous: "The idea is not to require excruciatingly bureaucratic testing. It's a risk-based approach."

Action on Farms

According to Griffiths, however, the single biggest impact on microbiological contamination is likely to come from the inclusion of primary producers in the food safety chain for the first time.

"Introducing good hygiene practices on farms will have a massive impact," he says. "When it comes to campylobacter, for example, even really basic stuff, such as changing footwear and handwashing, can cut contamination by an estimated 50%."

So, in theory, bringing the farmers on board should make it far easier for the suppliers further down the chain to comply.

As far as the FSA is concerned, the new primary production requirements should be manageable with help from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs. "We're not planning any new enforcement bodies," says Pratt. "Most of the real horrors in primary production are already closely controlled. We intend to keep it low key and use a light touch." FM

What the regulations say

It all started with an European Union (EU) White Paper on Food Safety in 2000. This set the triple goals of introducing a 'farm-to-fork' approach to food safety, placing the responsibility for safe food squarely on the shoulders of producers, rather than relying on the regulators, and ensuring the traceability of foodstuffs.

This was followed in 2002 by the introduction of the General Food Law (178/2002), which established the European Food Safety Authority and which will bring in a requirement for the traceability of food and food ingredients in January 2005. This has already caused a flurry of activity in terms of barcodes, smart tags and software.

Regulation 882/2004 on official controls of feed and food is designed to ensure a level playing field in terms of enforcement for food companies across Europe when it comes into play in 2006 (see main feature).

Then there are the initiatives dubbed H1 to H5. These are: the regulation on the hygiene of foodstuffs (H1); the regulation on specific hygiene rules applicable to products of animal origin (H2); the regulation on official controls on products of animal origin (H3); the Directive on the consolidation of existing animal health provisions relating to the marketing of products of animal origin (H4); and the Directive to repeal 16 existing directives and amend certain others (H5).

Apart from H4, which was adopted earlier and will come into force in 2005, the others will all come into force in January 2006.

Working under their own steam

To ensure its biscuit factory is spick and span, a major Scottish shortbread maker has bought a second steam vapour cleaning system from Saturno.

The advanced Saturno Super steam cleaner (right) is used to clean around the bases of the conveyors and mixing machines and the checkerplate wall, as well as other general areas. It saves money on water and chemicals and the lance tool and wall suction tool help to get difficult-to-reach corners clean.

Contact: Saturno Cleaning Systems, tel: 01580 752919.

spare the mop

Unwanted condensation in food plants during processing can carry contaminants to preparation surfaces and products.

Usually created by the large amounts of water routinely used to sanitise production areas, many processing facilities try to limit condensation by employing mop and wiper crews, costing time and labour, while the use of fans often aggravates contamination.

One way of lowering the risk caused by condensation is to maintain low-humidity in the factory.

Moisture control expert Munters has developed a condensation control system (CCS) which provides a hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP)-based, cost-effective means of doing just that.

Munters claims the system provides consistent moisture removal and because the absorption process is not limited to the freezing point of water it means existing cooling equipment defrosts less frequently. In many instances, it says, defrosts are reduced by up to 75%.

The system also inhibits dripping from overhead condensation and fog, while reducing labour costs.

Contact: Munters, tel: 01480 442300

key contacts

  • Food Standards Agency020 7276 8000
  • LawLabs0121 251 4000
  • SoFHT01590 671979

Related topics: Food Safety, Hygiene, safety & cleaning

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