IS IT TOO MUCH TO ASK FOR CONSISTENCY OF STANDARDS IN RESTAURANT FOOD SAFETY? APPARENTLY SO.


Irish Daily Mail
September 2017

For years, I’ve been giving a somewhat misleading impression in my weekly restaurant reviews, namely that it would be hard to throw a bread roll at random without hitting somewhere that serves good food. I’ll go so far as admitting that this is a deliberate policy: I go out of my way to find restaurants where they do things really well – from the celestial heights of, say, Chapter One, to the (literally) homegrown, wholesome simplicity of The Green Barn at Burtown House in Co Kildare.

The fact is that the average Irish restaurant is a plodding thing, trying its best to be all things to all people and sourcing all of what they serve from just one or, at most two food service companies. This is not because we don’t have a food culture comparable to Spain’s or Italy’s. No, the single biggest impediment to creativity, spontaneity and true localism in restaurants is the environmental health officers whose job it is to keep us safe.

Food poisoning is no joke; it can kill you. I have been infected with salmonella, listeria and E Coli O157, and I’m only too glad to be protected from such horrible bacteria.

But EHOs are not consistent and this means there’s no level playing field for the people who feed us in cafés and restaurants.

Examples are legion. When I eat a hamburger made by a restaurant that I trust, I may opt to have it rare. I understand that there’s a risk. There’s one burger restaurant in Dublin 2 where I can do so, thanks to the EHO who determines such things; in another, in Bray, the EHO has banned rare burgers.

One café owner in Dublin told me that she was driven to distraction by “petty, stupid things” demanded by her EHO on a regular basis; another, whose café is less than two kilometres away, said “We have a great relationship with our EHO. We haven’t see her for three years!”

While the four year degree course required to qualify as an EHO includes such subjects as physics, air quality, food technology, microbiology and communications, the actual preparation of food and traditional techniques of preservation like pickling, smoking and cheesemaking are merely touched upon.

“Most of them haven’t a clue,” says the owner of six restaurants, each with a different EHO. “They’re young and scared of the chain of command and they have to tick boxes. They have no interest in cooking, no interest in food; in fact, I reckon that would disqualify them for the job. Most of them have no idea of how restaurants actually work, what’s practical and what’s not.”

Another restaurant owner told me how he used to get meat from a small, local butcher. “He did superb quality, all fully traceable. I could walk briskly from his counter to my kitchen in just over three minutes but the EHO objected. He said the meat should be transported in a refrigerated van and temperatures taken and logged before and after arrival.”

“They want everything to come in one truck because they’re obsessed with temperature checks,” he says. “Order cheese in a restaurant in Paris or even London and you’ll get it at room temperature because everyone knows it tastes best that way. In Ireland you’ll almost always get it stone cold; the EHOs want it served straight from the fridge”.

Speaking of which, this restaurateur, soon after opening, was told to have his temperature probe sent to Dublin for calibration.

“I told the EHO that we couldn’t afford to but I’d do it myself by putting the probe in boiling water which, as everyone knows, is exactly 100ºC. She couldn’t get her head around that, but she gave in eventually.”

Another restaurateur says that chefs are expected to take spot temperatures right through the night’s cooking. “They just don’t have time,” he says. “It’s well known that most chefs make up the figures afterwards because they know what they are doing is safe. It’s mad.”

And there’s another problem. “If someone comes in with some fabulous fresh mackerel, say, or some wild rabbits, I’d love to cook them but the hassle would be unthinkable,” he says.  “So, you take a chance or, more likely, play it safe.”

The owner of two Dublin suburban restaurants was dismayed at some of the food handling practices at a local Saturday market. When he raised the issue with the EHO who covered the area, he was told “I don’t work weekends”.

“Our EHO on the southside is very different from the one on the northside” (where his other restaurant is located),” he says. “One of them wants the cleaning spray for table surfaces left in contact for two minutes. The other couldn’t care less. It’s not necessary and it’s just not practical in a busy restaurant. But overall, the trick is to leave them something to find.”

One EHO, inspecting a kitchen where they do some very complex cooking, complained that the hand-washing water wasn’t hot enough.

“That’s a water bath for cooking sous vide,” the chef had to explain. “It’s not a wash-hand basin”.

Restaurateurs are, understandably, reluctant to speak on the record. Pig farmer Peter Whelan of Whole Hoggs, on the other hand, believes it’s his duty to speak out.

He posted pictures of a cookery demo for his customers on Twitter. “The local EHO must have seen this and assumed I was selling cooked meat. She went to one of the restaurants I supply, seized some of my turf-smoked loin of bacon and claimed it was a cooked product while it was perfectly obvious that it wasn’t; it was cold-smoked and completely raw.”

“And then my vet inspector (meat producers are inspected by vets, not EHOs) comes out and tells me I need a licence to smoke meat! Something you don’t need in the rest of the EU. They wanted a list of all my customers. I felt like a criminal, knocked for six by an EHO busybody. Drug dealers on the street don’t get this level of hassle”.

Although he came close to despair and selling up, Peter stuck with the project and has a new smoke house soon to be commissioned and a new and very helpful and positive veterinary inspector.

Others who work in food don’t have that level of resolve. They give in to using pre-packed, pre-sliced, pre-processed products because it’s less bother. And what suffers is quality, originality, spontaneity, creativity, artisan produce for local consumption. In other words, what food should be all about.

Encouraging a lively, thriving, vibrant food culture and keeping people safe are not mutually exclusive objectives. As one restaurateur says “chefs really and truly don’t want to make people sick”. All it needs is common sense, but this seems to be in short supply in food safety in Ireland.