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Consumer hygiene fears keep food industry on its toes

A major outbreak of E.coli 0157 poisoning in which 500 people were affected and 20 people died, seems to have led to improvements in the management of food risks in the retail and catering industries in Scotland, according to ESRC funded research at the London School of Economics.

A report from the Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation (CARR) says that an education campaign following the 1996 outbreak raised the profile of food safety and hygiene and brought home the importance of environmental health officers (EHOs) and the human costs of poor practices. Survey data also suggests that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in Scotland is generally perceived to have better relations with the local food community than their counterparts in London.

The CARR study, which has been reported in Environmental Health Scotland, says that many managers in hotels, restaurants and food shops in the UK pay just as much attention to consumer fears and opinions as they do to rules and regulations, when it comes to evaluating food hygiene and safety risks.

‘Most managers in the sample sense a general public awareness of food safety and food hygiene risks,’ says CARR co-researcher, Clive Jones. ‘They said safety concerns were more important to the consumer than value for money, labelling and other considerations such as GM or additive content, even though actual risks might not be very high.’

The on-going research focused on risk management practices by businesses in south-east England and Scotland. A survey of 204 individuals in more than 30 businesses, ranging from large supermarket chains to independent restaurants and take-aways, found there was no consensus about the state of food safety and food hygiene in the UK today. It also revealed a high degree of confusion about the division of responsibility and functions of state regulators. A sizeable minority of respondents did not know that environmental health officers were employed by the local council. Scottish convenience store managers and restaurants knew more about the role of EHO than their counterparts in south-east England, possibly as a result of the wide-ranging enquiry, led by Professor Hugh Pennington in the aftermath of the 1996 E.coli outbreak.

‘The results reveal some potentially interesting data about the effects of greater investment in education and training in food safety and food hygiene training,’ says Professor Bridget Hutter, who led the research. ‘The suggestion that consumers as well as those in the food industry were influenced by the events of 1996 is also worth further exploration.’

The aim of the LSE research was to explore the influences of external organisations and pressures on business risk management practices and to throw some further light onto the debate about so-called ‘smart’ regulation within and beyond the state.

The findings also show that:

- State regulation continues to be a key influence on business risk management, but the influence of non-state groups, including consumers and trade associations, is also significant.

- Locally based EHO are perceived as a key influence by 68 per cent of managers in medium and large size businesses and 67 per cent of managers in micro and small businesses when considering food safety and hygiene risks.

- The influence of the media, NGOs and lawyers is not highly rated. Few respondents knew what an NGO was.

- Attitudes to commercial consultancies selling risk management advice were mixed. Some managers said they were exploiting the confusion of small firms about hazard control systems. Others said consultants contributed to ‘over-implementation of risk management practices.’

- Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are more reliant on state regulatory systems than large businesses, which are more likely to belong to trade associations with their codes of practice and policing schemes.

Annika Howard | alfa
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