“It does underline just how important it is to have official systems and controls in place, and happily that these controls were effective in picking up this BSE case and that the animal did not enter the food chain or cause any public health risk,” says Dr Pamela Byrne.
The number of queries handled by the FSAI’s Advice Line increased by 8% in 2014, compared with the previous year. Of the 14,348 queries received, 2,738 related to complaints by consumers about food and food premises, while 11,604 included requests for advice from food businesses across a range of food related areas.
Consumer complaints ranged from reports of unfit food, inaccurate labelling and hygiene standards. Calls showed a dramatic increase in requests for information on food labelling — up 100% on 2013.
“We would encourage consumers to engage with us when they want to make a complaint or find something that seems not quite right or encounter unhygienic practices in food businesses. We’re glad to hear from consumers because we can then make contact and, if necessary, work with those businesses to address any area of difficulty.”
A native of Cork, she holds a PhD in environmental toxicology and a BSc in zoology from UCC; an MSc in aquatic resource management from Kings College, University of London; and a higher diploma in environmental law from the University of Aberystwyth in Wales. During her time at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Dr Byrne was instrumental in developing Ireland’s research and innovation policy programmes in relation to food and the bio-economy.
She also worked in the Cabinet of the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, and now chairs the EU’s Joint Programming Initiative, A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life, and the Strategic Advisory Board of the Institute of Food and Health in UCD.
As FSAI chief executive she continues to deliver a regulatory environment to the fore in protecting public health and consumer interests in the area of food safety and hygiene. The FSAI recently published new guidelines aimed at ensuring consumers are not misled by the use of marketing terms on foods, and which will assist in the responsible use of marketing terms by food manufacturers, retailers and food service businesses to ensure they convey clear meanings that are not misleading.
“Consumers need to be confident that the foods they purchase and consume are accurately and truthfully described on the label, and this is one example of where the we put a great deal of effort into making sure consumers’ interests are protected. It is heartening to see consumers are more vigilant and reading their labels, and indeed we have noted the increased amount of traffic to our website relating to this area.”
Given the extension of the global food chain, ingredients sourced in a variety of territories are now available in significant quantity on retail shelves and require an ongoing oversight to ensure they meet the required standards.
“Consumers today have access to many more different foods and product offerings, and we do everything we possibly can to ensure they have information to hand to make informed choices,” she says.
A total of 113 enforcement orders were served on food businesses for breaches in food safety legislation in 2014, compared with 144 in 2013, a decrease of 21%. Whilst welcoming the reduction in numbers of orders served, the FSAI noted that 2014 still had the second highest number served on food businesses.
The FSAI holds regular Small Food Business Start-Up seminars around the country, to assist those working in small food businesses and those thinking of setting up a food business.
The events bring together a range of experts to explore the requirements needed for businesses to get off the ground and include representatives from the HSE and Teagasc who offer assistance and advice on everything from running a small food business, registering a new food business, food product development, food safety training requirements, setting up a food safety management system, labelling, traceability, food recall and inspections. The events also include case studies on running a small food business and developing a new food product presented by local companies. There are also Q&A sessions with sector experts, and financial advice by agencies like Microfinance Ireland and Local Enterprise Offices. Despite the economic downturn, Ireland has seen a 5% increase in the number of food businesses established over the last five years, with the total number now standing at over 47,000.
“Looking at the agri-food industry in Ireland, it is comprised of very small businesses operated by one person, along to smaller family operations, right up the line to very large multinational companies,” she says.
“We aim to provide the various tools and resources that the different kinds of food businesses need, and these seminars are one part of that mechanism. We are constantly looking at who are the food businesses in Ireland, and what can we do to help them to help get those operations up and running.”
The message to all operators, regardless of size, is the same, she says: “Businesses must absolutely produce safe food and put safe food on the market, and we will do everything we can to help them. This is a very exciting time in the food industry in Ireland, as seen by the 5% in start up businesses even at the height of the recession.
“While the future holds tremendous promise for Irish food, we must hammer home that companies using ingredients from both within the country and from far away places have a robust traceability system that complies with regulation. Traceability will be critical for all producers well into the future,” she says. “The simple message is: if you are not sure about the credentials of your supplier, find another one.”