Rare burgers – fad or folly?

hipster_food

Following on from my previous post here about the UK’s-but-not-Scotland’s Food Standards Agency giving a qualified green light to the commercial preparation and sale of undercooked burgers, I’ve made a short video setting out my objections. Click here to go to the video on YouTube.

And for those who insist on reading my turgid prose instead of listening to my sparkling delivery, it’s below the fold. Continue reading

Stick it in: No more pink in the middle for Worthy Burger after 7 sickened

This case, reported from the other side of the pond, shows just how dangerous it is to serve undercooked burgers. STECs are not trivial infections. As the report states, you can’t rely on colour to be sure cooking has killed all those nasty pathogenic E. coli bugs; only a thermometer will do.

Source: Stick it in: No more pink in the middle for Worthy Burger after 7 sickened

Why Scotland needs a better food hygiene rating scheme

Read this (New York City’s restaurant letter-grading system improved food safety, researchers find) from the very excellent blog The Pump Handle.

Visible food hygiene rating systems can only be in the public interest to help consumers find safe places to eat or buy food. It’s also clear – and this study from New York is one example – that clear, accessible, graded food hygiene rating systems also act to stimulate improvement for businesses themselves.

In the UK, England, Northern Ireland and Wales have a six-point Food Hygiene Rating Scheme giving, effectively, rating scores between zero and five. Three is considered to be generally satisfactory, but zero means that “urgent improvement is required”. The consequences for a business in getting a poor rating, particularly zero, can be considerable in terms of lost trade and the effort needed to bring themselves back up to standard. For example, I read today of one kebab takeaway in Bridgwater, Somerset, where a zero rating put his business under serious threat from the economic consequences alone – you can read that story here. By contrast, a business with a five rating has “very good” standards of hygiene.

In Wales, it is now a legal requirement to display the food hygiene rating at the entrance to the premises, and this means that a food business operator can no longer avoid the public knowing how well he or she is doing in serving them safe food. This is only to the good.

fhis_passScotland, being Scotland, has a different system. Here premises are either rated as “Pass” or “Improvement Required”. Pass is roughly equivalent to the score of three elsewhere in the UK. There is a separate EatSafe award which better businesses can apply for, but it’s not an automatic part of the Food Hygiene Information Scheme. And the major difference is that premises are not obliged to display their rating certificates in a prominent position. That said, you can occasionally see a Pass certificate, but very rarely at the front door, and you’ll never see an Improvement Required certificate.

Improvement Required

All food hygiene ratings in the UK can be found by visiting the Food Standards Agency’s website at http://ratings.food.gov.uk and searching for the premise in question. The website even work with the location on your mobile phone to advise you which eateries to avoid.

So it’s pretty clear to me that two things need to happen in Scotland if we’re to drive up standards of food hygiene, properly inform consumers and use the power of the market as a driver for change:

1. Make the display of hygiene rating certificates at the front door mandatory. There are powers in the new Food (Scotland) Act 2015 to do just this, but it still needs the political will of ministers to make the necessary regulations.

2. Cease the use of the binary Pass/Improvement Required rating system and adopt a similar scheme to England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Why there’ll be border controls at Gretna Green

In 712 days from today, Scotland could be an independent nation. And the rest of the UK will be obliged to impose border controls. Not, as you might think, to prevent Romanian and Syrian refugees sneaking past at Gretna Green, but to carry out border inspections of Scottish smoked salmon, MacSween haggises and Loch Fyne oysters.

The only thing that is certain about the proposals for independence is that everything is uncertain. With the results of the referendum known on 19th September this year, that leaves only 552 days to sort out the arrangements for an independent Scottish nation, and most of that time will be spent begging for warships and aircraft and simultaneously demanding that rUK removes its nuclear assets from the Clyde. The remaining political energy will be engaged in wrangling over debts and assets, and what arrangements can be put in place to keep electricity flowing between the two countries.

There are huge problems in ensuring an orderly transition from being in the UK and, by extension, the European Union, and being outside both. I’ve no doubt that the natural goodwill between friendly neighbours on this island will overcome many problems and keep business as normal as much as possible, but what the rUK cannot do is independently admit to its markets goods and products which otherwise require border controls to enter the EU. And food which contains products of animal origin is one such set of goods.

Whatever Alec Salmond says, the indications are pretty clear that an independent Scotland will, on 24th March 2016, not be a member of the EU. On this point, the President of the European Commission, Mr Jose Manuel Barroso, told the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee:

A new independent state would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the EU and the Treaties would no longer apply on its territory … any European state which respects the principles set out in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union may apply to become a member of the EU. If the application is accepted by the Council acting unanimously, an agreement is then negotiated between the applicant state and the Member States on the conditions of admission and the adjustments to the Treaties which such admission entails. This agreement is subject to ratification by all Member States and the applicant state.

Council Directive 97/78/EC of 18 December 1997 lays down the principles governing the organisation of veterinary checks on products entering the Community from third countries. This is supplemented by Regulation (EC) 882/2004, which organises official controls of food and feed so as to integrate controls at all stages of production and in all sectors.

This Directive applies to imports from third countries, specifically:

  • food products of animal origin;
  • animal feed;
  • plant products which may give rise to the risk of spreading infectious or contagious animal diseases; and
  • by-products not intended for human consumption.

All consignments of products from third countries shall be subjected to veterinary checks required by the Directive before being introduced into the European Union (EU). These checks shall be carried out at a border inspection post by the competent authority under the responsibility of the official veterinarian. The checks include:

  • a documentary check involving verification of the veterinarian certificates and documents or other documents accompanying the consignment;
  • an identity check to ascertain that the products correspond to the information given in the accompanying certificates or documents;
  • a physical check in order to ascertain that the products satisfy the requirements of EU legislation (packaging, temperature, sampling and laboratory testing). and

These checks can be largely mitigated by ensuring that products of animal origin come from “approved Third Country establishments”. The legal basis for the listing of Third Country establishments is provided by Regulation 854/2004. The relevant extract from Article 12 follows:

Article 12
List of establishments from which imports of specified products of animal origin are permitted

1. Products of animal origin may be imported into the Community only if they have been dispatched from, and obtained or prepared in, establishments that appear on lists drawn up and updated in accordance with this Article, except:
(a) when, on a case-by-case basis, it is decided, in accordance with the procedure referred to in Article 19(2), that the guarantees that a specified third country provides in respect of imports of specified products of animal origin are such that the procedure provided for in this Article is unnecessary to ensure compliance with the requirements of paragraph 2;
and
(b) in the cases specified in Annex V.
In addition, fresh meat, minced meat, meat preparations, meat products and mechanically separated meat (MSM) may be imported into the Community only if they have been manufactured from meat obtained in slaughterhouses and cutting plants appearing on lists drawn up and updated in accordance with this Article or in approved Community establishments.

2. An establishment may be placed on such a list only if the competent authority of the third country of origin guarantees that:
(a) that establishment, together with any establishments handling raw material of animal origin used in the manufacture of the products of animal origin concerned, complies with relevant Community requirements, in particular those of Regulation (EC) No 853/2004, or with requirements that were determined to be equivalent to such requirements when deciding to add that third country to the relevant list in accordance with Article 11;
(b) an official inspection service in that third country supervises the establishments and makes available to the Commission, where necessary, all relevant information on establishments furnishing raw materials;
and
(c) it has real powers to stop the establishments from exporting to the Community in the event that the establishments fail to meet the requirements referred to under (a).

3. The competent authorities of third countries appearing on lists drawn up and updated in accordance with Article 11 shall guarantee that lists of the establishments referred to in paragraph 1 are drawn up, kept up-to-date and communicated to the Commission.

4. (a) The Commission shall provide the contact points that Member States have designated for this purpose with regular notifications concerning new or updated lists that it has received from the competent authorities of third countries concerned in accordance with paragraph 3.
(b) If no Member State objects to the new or updated list within 20 working days of the Commission’s notification, imports shall be authorised from establishments appearing on the list 10 working days after the day on which the Commission makes it available to the public.
(c) The Commission shall, whenever at least one Member State makes written comments, or whenever it considers that the modification of a list is necessary in the light of relevant information such as Community inspection reports or a notification under the rapid alert system, inform all Member States and include the point on agenda of the next meeting of the relevant section of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health for decision, where appropriate, in accordance with the procedure referred to in Article 19(2).

5. The Commission shall arrange for up-to-date versions of all lists to be available to the public.

It is the nature of the EU that it has one external border for trade, and that any goods within that border can be freely traded between member states without further hindrance. At the moment, products of animal origin produced in member states, including those from Scottish producers, carry an oval marking which indicates that the food has been produced in an establishment approved under Regulation (EC) 853/2004. Those oval markings cannot be applied to Third Country products. This alone means that, at the very least, there is a great deal of work to be done if the trade in Scottish food with its largest markets in the EU is to continue after 26th March 2016.

At the absolute minimum, the EU will require to recognise the competence of the system of official controls in place in Scotland and agree that every food manufacturer currently approved under Regulation (EC) 853/2004 can transition to the status of an approved Third Country establishment. Additionally, every food producer will require to change their packaging and remove the oval “health mark” once Scotland is no longer a member of the EU, and any products already so labelled will no longer be permitted to be sold within the EU. Unless there is enormous good will from the EU institutions and considerable hard work in negotiating transitional arrangements. But, for sure, there is going to be a period of time when Scotland is outwith the EU in the case of independence and the peril to our farming and food production industry is serious – potentially catastrophically so – and so far ignored by the politicians.

As Professor Jo Shaw of Edinburgh University has said, all of these things are negotiable, but how much priority will the livelihoods of farmers, fishermen and food manufacturers receive in the vain-glorious charge to secession?

Brazen Scottish Conservatives refuse to admit their lying over food safety in Scottish schools

I’ve now heard from Tom Wall, the Digital Editor for Environmental Health News, that he’s had a response form the Scottish Conservative party about their mischief-making over food safety in Scottish schools. They do not deny the accusation of lying or mischief-making. Draw your own conclusions, folks.

In fact, you can email them at michael.tait@scottish.parliament.uk if you think their position is cowardly and contemptuous of the electorate – or if you think their position is virtuous and bold and you wish to congratulate them for sticking by their guns. Or you can follow their Twitter feed at @ScotTories, or even send them a message congratulating them on their brass neck.

The email exchange between Tom Wall and Michael Tait is below:

From: Michael.Tait@scottish.parliament.uk <Michael.Tait@scottish.parliament.uk>
Sent: Monday, March 17, 2014 11:40 PM
To: Tom Wall
Subject: RE: School standards press release ‘misleading’

Dear Tom,

We have no further response beyond the letter to Mr Mackie.

Regards

Michael

From: Tom Wall
Sent: 17 March 2014 12:54
To: Tait M (Michael)
Subject: Re: School standards press release ‘misleading’

Hi Michael

Would be useful to know if you are going to respond?

The FSA data provides no basis for claiming improvement notices were served and or making inferences about cleanliness of school kitchens. But your press release does both. Are you going to amend the press release?

Thanks

Tom

​Tom Wall
Environmental Health News
Digital Editor

Twitter @EHN_Online
Web www.ehn-online.com

Chartered Institute of Environmental Health
Chadwick Court 15 Hatfields London SE1 8DJ

Foodsafety mischief by Scottish Conservatives published in EHN_Online

My small but persistent request for evidence from the Scottish Conservatives about the data underlying their mischievous claims about food safety in Scottish schools has been picked up by the prestigious on-line environmental health journal, EHN Online. Tom Wall, the reporter who wrote the story based upon the posts in this blog, relates that even he couldn’t get the party to show their working. Perhaps shaming on a UK stage will now prompt a response. As always, watch this space.

Let’s be clear – the Scottish Conservatives lied about food safety in schools

I’m a patient old Hector, but five weeks is plenty long enough for me to wait for the Scottish Conservatives to offer up the evidence behind their unfounded assertions about food safety in Scottish school kitchens. They may well be right in thinking that I’m an insignificant blogger – and my stats wouldn’t disagree – but that’s not the point. I care about evidence-based environmental health, and I care about the press and the public being given accurate information based on reliable sources about food safety and other matters of public health interest. In fact, it’s more important that the press are given accurate information, because the majority of media outlets simply don’t have either the scientifically-trained staff, the time or the inclination to check the assertions that are presented to them as facts.

And this is where the Scottish Conservatives fall down. I’m going to reiterate the whole sorry saga just for the record, although it is set out in previous posts on this blog, here, here and here.

Eight weeks ago, a number of newspapers published – probably verbatim (because they say almost exactly the same things) – a press release from the Scottish Conservative party, who were trying to make mischief about the state of food hygiene in Scottish schools. I say “make mischief” because that is the only conclusion that can be drawn from their refusal to produce evidence of the assertions that they made.

This is what I wrote in my first post on the subject:

The summary of the story is, that over the period from 2009 to 2013, 83 schools, nurseries and after-school clubs received “Improvement Required” food hygiene ratings. This means that the establishments failed to meet the “broadly compliant” rating scores for the rating elements of food hygiene, premises condition or confidence in management. Obviously, this is a matter of concern, but it does not indicate that any of these sites were serving unsafe food – a site could fail to meet the requisite standard simply by failing to maintain adequate records of temperature checks, or having some structural problems, which are not themselves directly hazardous to the safety of food being prepared. More serious deficiencies would include failure of cross-contamination controls, but this cannot be interpreted from the food hygiene rating given to a site after inspection.

There are a number of interesting aspects to this story, so let’s deal with the factual errors first.

All the reports refer to “FSA [Food Standards Agency] inspections”

This is wrong. The FSA do not carry out food safety/food hygiene inspections of caterers in Scotland, nor in any other part of the UK. This work is done by local authority environmental health officers (EHOs) and specialist-qualified food safety officers.

Food hygiene ratings in Scotland (and the rest of the UK) are published on the FSA’s website at http://ratings.food.gov.uk, which is an easily searchable and up-to-date resource giving information about the most recent inspection outcome for a catering establishment. In Scotland, unlike other parts of the UK, there is a binary rating system of “Pass” or “Improvement Required”. There is no requirement for a food business to display the certificate and they are, in fact, rarely seen on the streets. <snip>

Facilities in Glasgow, Highlands and the Scottish Borders were among the worst offenders for cleanliness in their catering facilities.

This statement about cleanliness cannot be interpolated from the food hygiene ratings website, which is the only source given for the data in the study.

Parents will be horrified to know their child may have been served a meal from a facility that inspectors saw fit to serve with an improvement notice.

This quote is from Mary Scanlon MSP, who is the party’s education spokeswoman. Unless the study carried out specifically identified whether a Hygiene Improvement Notice had been served under the Food Hygiene (Scotland) Regulations 2006, it will be wrong (a) to assume that an Improvement Required rating would automatically be accompanied by a formal notice under the regulations or (b) to conflate the Improvement Required rating with being an improvement notice, which it is not.

The intervention that follows an unsatisfactory food safety inspection can range from informal advice, to an informal letter, to a formal hygiene improvement notice, all the way through to emergency closure of the premises or prosecution by the Crown. None of that can be interpreted simply from the food hygiene rating data on the FSA’s website.

I wrote to the Scottish Conservatives asking for more information and received no reply. A further enquiry elicited a response on behalf of Mary Scanlon MSP, the party’s Education Spokesman, which is reproduced in full here. That reply failed to provide any evidence for the misleading statements widely reproduced in the media, and which caused unnecessary alarm for parents and consternation for diligent school meals operations across Scotland, so I asked again:

Dear Mrs Scanlon,
Thank you for your response and I know it’s useful to be alerted to problems with particular channels of communication.
As to the interpretation of the FSA ratings data, your own quote stated that:
(a) improvement notices were served, and
(b) many of the adverse ratings were for cleanliness.
Neither statement can be derived from the rating data, which is why I have requested a copy of the study on which your media report and quoted statements were made. I wish to verify whether your researcher has done a good job in sourcing and interpreting the data which was used in your story. This is not a matter of nuance, but facts, and the public deserve to be provided with accurate facts, even though there may be disagreement on their interpretation or the proper response to them.
Thank you in anticipation,
Yours sincerely,
Patrick Mackie

I’ve heard nothing from them.

So: in the absence of evidence to demonstrate that the party’s researchers were using any source of information other that the FSA’s food hygiene ratings website, I confidently declare that the following statements made by the Scottish Conservatives were made-up and therefore mendacious, a word which my dictionary defines as given to deception or  falsehood, or in plain English, a pack of lies:

Erroneous assertion 1: School kitchens are inspected by the Food Standards Agency. See above. Okay, I can be a bit generous here and let this pass as sloppy research, but even so …

Lie 2: That any conclusion could be drawn from the ratings data about why school kitchens failed to achieve the Pass standard and that some schools failed on the grounds of cleanliness. See above

Lie 3: That any conclusion could be drawn from the ratings data about whether or not Improvement Notices had been served on any of the school kitchens inspected. See above

Now, I am perfectly happy to change my interpretation of the statements of the Scottish Conservatives and retract the allegation of mendacity/lying if they provide me the evidence for the statements made, i.e. that they have reliable sources of data other than the food hygiene ratings published on the FSA’s website. As a wise man once said, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

Politicians, huh?

Show me your working

At last, I’ve had a reply from Mary Scanlon MSP, the Education Spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, about my questions regarding their claims relating to standards of food hygiene in Scottish schools. Her reply is as follows:

Dear Mr Mackie

Thank you for getting in contact concerning our recent release on hygiene failings in school kitchens.

I would like to apologise for the delay in responding to your requests. I completely accept that it should not take three emails before a response is forthcoming. I will look into why this was the case, but would point out that my office first became aware of your concerns only last week.

The purpose of the story was simple: to highlight the fact that many school kitchens across Scotland have been told to improve standards. Parents, quite rightly, take a keen interest in such matters and thus by publicising the data we were serving an important public interest.

That said, it should have been made clear that Environmental Health Officers, not the FSA, conducted the inspections. A number of EHOs have contacted me since the story was published and I have apologised for any offence that was caused. With future stories of this nature, proper representation will always be given.

Beyond that, I would point out that we never sought to give the impression that every facility was in breach of cleanliness guidelines. In fact, we made it clear that the “improvement required” ratings were broad in scope.

We also refrained from naming individual schools. We did this so as to ensure that serious breaches were not conflated with less serious (although still concerning) shortcomings.

We were also very careful not to exaggerate the findings. The data published on the FSA website contained numerous after school clubs held at facilities (such as churches) which cannot reasonably be expected to adhere to the same strict standards as nurseries, primary and secondary schools. In such instances we erred on the side of caution and omitted them from our results.

While I appreciate your argument that the news reports were not sufficiently nuanced, the story was intended to highlight a broad problem which will concern many parents, pupils and staff. As I argued at the time, and as you pointed out in your blog, all failings are issues of concern and this should not be lost sight of.

Once again, thank you for your correspondence.

 Yours Sincerely

Mary Scanlon MSP

They’re still not showing their working, so I’ve replied:

Dear Mrs Scanlon,
Thank you for your response and I know it’s useful to be alerted to problems with particular channels of communication.
As to the interpretation of the FSA ratings data, your own quote stated that:
(a) improvement notices were served, and
(b) many of the adverse ratings were for cleanliness.
Neither statement can be derived from the rating data, which is why I have requested a copy of the study on which your media report and quoted statements were made. I wish to verify whether your researcher has done a good job in sourcing and interpreting the data which was used in your story. This is not a matter of nuance, but facts, and the public deserve to be provided with accurate facts, even though there may be disagreement on their interpretation or the proper response to them.
Thank you in anticipation,
Yours sincerely,
Patrick Mackie

As I’ve said before, I’m not hopeful that they will disclose what they’d demand of any professional making the same claims. But we shall see.

Improvement required from the Scottish Conservatives

Improvement Required

I wrote previously about bad food safety statistics from the Scottish Conservatives and, a week later, about their failure to respond to my questions about their report. Since I’ve had no acknowledgement nor any response in the week since my last enquiry, I’ve now emailed Mary Scanlon MSP directly as follows:

To: Mary.Scanlon.MSP@scottish.parliament.uk
Subject: Food hygiene standards in Scottish schools

Dear Ms Scanlon,
Earlier this month the Scottish Conservatives published a media release on food hygiene standards in Scottish schools and which quoted you as the Education spokesperson for the party. I do not believe the conclusions reached in that report could be based on the reported data sources, nor that the report accurately represents the regulation of food safety in schools in Scotland. I have written a critique of that report here
.
I have twice attempted to obtain additional information about the report through the enquiries form on the Scottish Conservatives’ website, but have received neither an acknowledgement of my request nor a response. I am certain that you would expect better customer care of any public sector body and will be as surprised as I am that I have been ignored to date.
My second request was dated 11th January – one week ago – and was as follows:

On 6th January I made an enquiry which has, to date, neither been answered nor acknowledged. You can find the text of my question at the foot of this blog post: https://patrickmackie.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/bad-food-safety-statistics-from-the-scottish-conservative-party/
I’d appreciate a response.
Thank you

I am certain that you care as much as I do about the safety of food in schools AND the accuracy of the reporting of the facts. I should be grateful for your response to these enquiries.
Yours sincerely,
Patrick Mackie

Let’s see how long it takes to get a response and the answers this time. All correspondence will be posted here.