Given the antagonism that often exists between retailers and their food manufacturing suppliers, it is refreshing to attend events organised by the Society of Food Hygiene and Technology (SOFHT) where individuals from both freely associate with a common agenda to improve food safety along the supply chain.
SOFHT's membership currently comprising 398 members (including 17 supporting company members), of which 190 represent themselves rather than companies covers retailers, manufacturers and service providers.
"It doesn't matter whether you are from Tesco, Sainsbury, Marks & Spencer, or you are a pest control company, you are all talking the same language," says Catherine Watkinson, SOFHT's new chair the first woman to be appointed to the position.
Watkinson, who is senior technical manager at Lyons Seafood at Warminster in Wiltshire, officially took over in June 2012, but she has effectively been doing the job since January when former chair Simon Houghton-Dodd of Tate & Lyle stepped down.
She is under no illusions about the huge task facing her over the two years of her tenure as SOFHT chair especially given the current tough economic climate in which every penny people spend has to be justified. But with 17 years' experience in the food industry behind her all spent at Lyons Seafood after completing a degree in Food Science Technology at the University Of Wales Institute Of Cardiff she is in no doubt about the need for SOFHT to engage more with technical managers within food companies.
"We know it is difficult out there, what with the recession. And we want to deliver a service to as many people as we can," says Watkinson.
Her aim is to increase membership to 500 over the next two years, but she recognises SOFHT has to offer its members even better value for money if she is to achieve her goal. Along the way, SOFHT also needs to become a stronger voice for its members amongst regulators and in the corridors of power, she says.
"We have to deliver over and above their expectations," she says. "I would love to hit that 500 mark and where I want that to pick up is the individual membership: the technical managers and the quality managers."
To make it more attractive to this group of individuals, SOFHT plans to create a number of working groups (WG) and technical forums to discuss the sort of issues, such as the impact of the Food Information Regulation, affecting this sector of the industry.
While SOFHT already runs a number of successful briefings, breakfast clubs and training sessions for its members, Watkinson is convinced there are other untapped opportunities to provide networking opportunities, allowing those with similar concerns to come together and thrash out their problems.
"If we have a WG we become quite strong in being able to go back to the enforcement agencies and government and say this [regulation] doesn't quite work here and the Society would like to represent these views," she adds.
As part of its forward strategy, SOFHT plans to work more closely with other organisations in the sector, such as the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
While she believes the FSA is "doing a good job", she feels it should be working harder to address the rising incidences of campylobacter in the UK on top of the activities its has already undertaken with the poultry supply chain.
"We need to be delivering more and quicker," said Watkinson. "Year after year we see the rising levels of campylobacter poisoning and somewhere someone is not nailing it."
She adds: "We need to get closer to the FSA as a society and then we can find out what they are really up to and [help them] so that they can deliver more."
Watkinson admits there is also mileage in talking to organisations such as the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) to discuss areas of overlapping interest. This might cover activities designed to encourage more students into the sector or providing greater training and support for technical managers already within the industry.
"We have just launched our student membership," says Watkinson. For a relatively small sum, this gives students access to a variety of resources and networking opportunities to help them secure employment, she adds. SOFHT also plans to launch a new student award scheme. The new awards may also be linked to a conference and recruitment fair, adds Watkinson. More details about the awards scheme should emerge at SOFHT's annual lunch being held in London next month.
Food safety concerns
Watkinson is convinced that SOFHT's relevance today is greater than ever before, especially given the cash-strapped environment in which both manufacturers and local authority environmental health departments have to operate.
"The availability of money for people to train their staff in hygiene is a concern for us," remarks Watkinson. "When there is not enough money, what goes first is training."
She also highlights SOFHT's concerns over the staffing crisis facing the food sector, as skills are lost through an ageing workforce. Not only is new blood needed at the bottom, there is a need to retain and properly train those already in it, she says.
Watkinson shares the concerns of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health about cuts to local authority (LA) budgets. She worries that the diversion of resources from LA environmental health departments specifically those devoted to resourcing environmental health officers (EHOs) will adversely affect food safety along the supply chain.
"I see my EHO flying in and flying out," she says. "I've just heard they are going to reduce the number of visits they do to schools and establishments like that and that shocks me. It absolutely shocks me."
Like Sainsbury's chief microbiologist Alec Kyriakides, Watkinson accepts that efficiency improvements, such as sharing expertise between authorities, are possible. However, she is less sanguine when it comes to the impact that cuts will have. She fears reduced EHO provision will jeopardise public health.
"Food safety is absolutely key. Rather than looking at reducing the resource, they should look at the bureaucracy and the paperwork. But reducing visits to high-risk factories or schools or nurseries, or whatever it is to me that is fundamentally wrong. I worry about that."
Watkinson believes that science has a big role to play in improving food safety. But only if consumers are brought along with the industry's adoption of new technologies. Otherwise, she warns, we risk repeating the fiasco that occurred with early attempts to introduce genetic modification.
"I'm all for new initiatives if they improve food safety," says Watkinson. "But, everything is there for a reason and has been developed for a reason."
She stresses the importance of not misleading consumers when adopting novel food hygiene practices, such as the use of antimicrobial washes, nanotechnology or irradiation. Unlike the FSA's chief scientist Dr Andrew Wadge, she is not convinced that some disreputable suppliers wouldn't be tempted to use 'magic bullet' processes to cover up poor hygiene practices.
"We would have to ensure, as far as consumers are concerned, that systems are not in place to cover up bad practices you know, you irradiate because you've got too high a microbe level, or whatever."
However, she adds: "If they are used properly and they are managed, controlled and regulated they have a place."
Rick Pendrous is a SOFHT Fellow and won its Most Significant Contribution Award in 2006.