Clean up your act

By Freddie Dawson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food safety Food

Clean up your act
As retailers call for more accredited food safety training, how can firms get staff up to speed at minimum cost, asks Freddie Dawson

The recent outbreak of Escherichia coli (E.coli) in the European supply chain has raised awareness of food safety issues. There has been some debate as to whether some companies have allowed food safety and hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) training to, if not lapse, at least be placed on the back burner. There are ways in which the industry can use HACCP training to prevent outbreaks from happening.

The increased attention generated by the press coverage of the E.coli incident means that some of the UK's retailers are calling for more accredited food safety training, according to Justine Fosh, skills solutions director at the National Skills Academy (NSA) and Improve, the sector skills council.

Farm to fork

Despite the attention, it is unlikely that a similar outbreak to the German E-coli incident would happen in the UK, experts suggest. "The UK leads the EU in food hygiene and does farm to fork better than anyone else,"​ says John Rigarlsford, microbiologist and consultant for the Society of Food Hygiene Technology (SOFHT). Manufacturers' use of HACCP is so advanced they are showing hospitals how it can be used to prevent MRSA infections, he says. Rigarlsford notes that NHS managers recently asked him for a presentation he gave at a conference in the Netherlands.

There has not been widespread panic regarding food safety training because most UK manufacturers are already quite solid, agrees Fosh. "The whole process would have been better handled if Germany had the equivalent of the Food Standards Agency (FSA)," says Rigarlsford. "The experience, national knowledge and quick reaction the FSA provides in the UK have been missing throughout the investigation and some German microbiologists have expressed disgust at its handling thus far," he explains.

But, despite high UK food safety standards, there is still a chance of something breaking through. "One of these days I'm going to write a book titled 'Bugs don't read textbooks', because micro-organisms do all sorts of things we don't expect," ​Rigarlsford says. HACCP procedures have to take this into account one of the reasons it is important to refresh supervisors and senior management in the latest HACCP developments, he adds.

Budgetary restrictions

But not all processors are refreshing their operators' food safety knowledge and properly training higher-level employees in HACCP.

Some companies have had to cut back on training budgets due to tighter finances. In some cases basic training is provided to all operators, but refresher courses may have been allowed to lapse, says Vince Shears, md of consultancy and training provider RQA.

HACCP training for supervisors, as well as legislation and advanced HACCP procedures for senior positions, may also have suffered cutbacks despite them having ultimate responsibility for food safety, he adds. Equally, when it comes to HACCP training, some firms look at it as a 'once and done' event for employees, rather than a dynamic process that is constantly evolving, says Rigarlsford. He adds that even if a manufacturer only makes a minor change to ingredients or processes, it should redo its HACCP.

Refreshing training when HACCP is being reviewed can allow staff to learn new microbiological techniques, while a fresh pair of eyes on control point selection can pick up on mistakes brought about through over-familiarity, says Rigarlsford. "It's a similar analogy to how people at home don't see the cobwebs on their walls sometimes,"​ he says.

For instance, Listeria was regularly appearing in one factory's aseptic packaging machine, says Rigarlsford. This was because it was covering the point of access to a drain underneath it and staff had to reach through it to clean the drain, he adds. More than likely, the E.coli outbreak in Germany was due to procedures not being followed or implemented properly somewhere along the supply-chain in much the same way, he says.

"I'd be surprised if we learn something [from the E-coli outbreak] that is fundamental to food safety that we did not know before,"​ agrees Shears. Operators knowing the 'why' behind procedures, such as wearing a white coat or washing their hands means they will be more likely to follow them, he adds.

Customised courses

While the outbreak is unlikely to be something never seen before in food safety, trainers are increasingly customising courses to address sector-specific food safety issues, says Fosh. Courses about specific risks such as Lincoln University's course dealing with fresh produce are becoming more common, she says. Conversely, she says, demand for general food safety courses is dropping. The NSA is helping manufacturers find training providers specialising in their sector through its websites, she says.

With the finer points of food safety constantly being adjusted, trainers are increasingly coming into the factory to fully tailor programmes to individual production lines, says Shears. And while trainers can come back at regular intervals to update courses in line with what has changed at the factory and in the wider world of food safety and HACCP training, it would be expensive to bring them in every time new staff joined, he adds.

Online opportunities

Significant staff turnover is common to most food manufacturers and having a food safety course that new employees can do online is often the easiest and more cost-effective way to get new employees up to speed in their inductions, says Shears.

In addition, when employees need refresher courses it makes it simpler to show documented proof of food safety training when it comes to audit time.

Providers are also now offering customised courses that are tailored to the sector-specific needs of different manufacturers.

While many companies have an employee specialising in health and safety and HACCP training, who gives new employee inductions, online courses can supplement their teaching through not only providing basic information but also keeping records straight and automatically flagging up employees who need a refresher course, he adds.

Food safety training that doesn't involve accredited courses is increasingly not being accepted by retailers, says Fosh. The ability of online courses to track and then quickly display certification for employees is an advantage when undergoing a food safety audit, she says.

Shears suspects there will be more auditing and inspections for a period of time after the E-coli outbreak but does not feel that it is a long-term solution. "As an industry we know how to make safe food. The key is more making sure the procedures, systems and records that need to be in place are there, visible and accessible."​ The migration of training online and its continued refinement to individual sectors and even individual manufacturers is the best way the industry can do this.

New Advanced Training Partnership

A new training programme has been devised for high-level researchers throughout the food supply chain.

The Advanced Training Partnership (ATP) has been set up between Reading University, Birmingham University, Leatherhead Food Research and Rothamsted Research which specialises in agriculture. The move came in response to a call from the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to better deliver university level training to the food industry as a whole, according to Richard Frazier, senior lecturer in food biochemistry at the University of Reading and director of the ATP.

"Consultation has revealed the need for a 'without boundaries' approach to training,"​ says Frazier, adding that the different collaborators can supply teaching from different parts of the supply chain reconnecting the food sector.

The ATP will focus on food quality and health issues as well as sustainability issues, such as issues affecting food security and how they will impact on new food production.

Module credits can accumulate for up to three years leading to a postgraduate certificate or diploma, a masters or a professional doctorate, says Frazier.

The professional doctorate allows individuals to combine research done within the industry with modular taught components allowing flexibility with time and choice of speciality a novel approach for such a qualification, he adds.

Individual modules can also be taken as part of continuing professional development activities and the Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST) accredits modules towards IFST membership and chartered scientist status, says Frazier.

Frazier believes that the courses are competitively priced: the doctorate costs £38,000, the masters £22,000, the postgraduate diploma £18,000, the postgraduate certificate £9,000 and individual modules £1,500 for three to five days of training.

The £3m of funding from the BBSRC will also be used to provide bursaries for interested parties, although how much the bursaries will be and how they will be handed out is still being decided, he says. Funding is just being finalised and will cover the first five years of the ATP, with the hope it would run self-sufficiently from fees generated from eight10 professional doctorates and 2025 module takers each year after that, Frazier adds.

The ATP is expected to be up and running by 2012 and will start to take applications or expressions of interest from around the end of this year.

Three other ATPs have also been set up in response to the BBSRC's call looking at sustainable food production, livestock health and the advancement of the UK's agri-industry.

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