Enforcing food safety laws in the small-scale food sector (Supervision)

“The new world will be a collaboration of people who have a goal to make the food supply safer working together to get to safer practices,” – Dr. David M. Theno. From these powerful words of this great food safety expert and advocate, it is obvious that the issue of food safety requires the attention of many actors other than those involved in preparing and processing foods for the population.

Indeed, the responsibility lies on those making the laws on food safety and the enforcement authorities to jointly review progress and ask critical questions as to whether as a nation we’re achieving the goal of protecting consumers from food-poisoning and foodborne illnesses. The role of food scientists, technologists, microbiologists and food safety experts in getting food processors to comply with standards has been overlooked, even though provision has been made in the law regarding their responsibilities in ensuring food safety is upheld.

 

The Law

Section 101 of the Public Health Act 2012, Act 851, talks about the manufacture of food under supervision. The law states that: “A person shall not manufacture a food for sale unless the food is manufactured under the supervision of a person with appropriate knowledge and qualification who can ensure the purity, quality and wholesomeness of the food”. The consumption of safe and quality food is extremely important in keeping a healthy population.

While the food industry is responsible for producing safe food, it is the responsibility of government agencies to ensure the right standards are set and enforced. Standards are enforced through inspections and ensuring that laws regarding the manufacture of safe and quality food operate in reality at the various food facilities. The lack of intensive enforcement allows the majority of operators to flout the law.

At a recent programme that was aimed at players in the food and beverage sector, one particular concern those entrepreneurs spent a lot of time on was the lack of knowledge as to how they can assess the quality and safety of their products. It is encouraging to note that some established small-scale food businesses and even start-ups are aiming for safety and quality. The majority of food industry players have issues maintaining food safety and quality, but must be aware, though, that there are always consequences.

 

Knowledge Gap

The need for training and capacity building in the food sector cannot be overemphasized. The entry of people into the food industry can be subtle; when a person prepares or processes food that tastes good and has a few thumbs-ups, the next thing is to set up a food industry. There is nothing wrong with selling your expertise through a food setup. In fact, many more players are encouraged to make an entry into the food industry so that consumers will enjoy diversity, innovation and creativity.

It is worth noting, however, that anything done for the public has very strict rules. The food industry is awash with variety: processed foods, fresh foods, recipes containing both fresh and processed foods etc. The impact of food-poisoning on a working population such as ours can be dire. The literacy level among the food community is quite low and needs boundless attention. It is not good enough for municipal authorities to insist on food-handler tests.

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In other jurisdictions, you are not permitted to process food if you don’t have a certificate in food safety and quality from a reputable organization or an expert. These certifications come in the form of short courses and hence are not stressful to take. The conversation surrounding packaging technology alone is huge. The types of packaging materials and their uses in the food industry is a broad area that needs stressing.

It is disturbing to see products packed into packaging that should not be allowed in the food industry, for instance. In several packaging forums where I have done presentations, the kind of questions emerging from the audience clearly expose the knowledge gap that exists. A chunk of product shelf-life issues emanates from packaging.

 

The Role of Food Safety Professionals

Food Safety professionals play an important role in protecting the public against food-poisoning and foodborne illnesses. Of course, they are also responsible for safeguarding the suitability of food products – and this is usually in relation to the quality of food.  The activities to make this happen include providing training or education about food safety, hygiene and sanitation in retail or institutional settings, as well as inspecting institutional food service, restaurant, and retail food store facilities.

The above functions can be addressed by so many professionals from diverse academic backgrounds that we should not be encountering the sort of challenges we currently have with food safety and quality. People with backgrounds in Food Science & Technology, Biological Sciences, Biochemistry and Food Microbiology are but a few of the professionals the nation can call on to provide such services.

When a nation loses priority of important issues confronting its people, the backlash reaches monumental heights and disrupts the general living standards of the populace. I speak of the lack of clear policy direction for engaging food safety professionals into our food systems other than just a section in the law stating the need for qualified personnel to supervise food operations. This explains the very common phenomenon of having an army of such professionals working in financial institutions and other non-food businesses, and in so doing forgetting all about the profession they so much desired to pursue.

 

The Role of Regulatory Authorities

The role of the FDA/Municipal authorities is backed by the Public Health Act, 2012 Act 851. The recruitment of appropriate staff for all food-joints should be enforced if we want to see the food industry thrive like those in the western world. There are several graduates with the requisite background to help in the implementation of food safety systems. There also exist consulting businesses with experienced individuals who can be called on to support this process.

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The issue of cost of hiring came up strongly a few weeks ago at a programme that assembled SMEs from the food industry. It was obvious that the MDs of those businesses knew the importance of hiring professionals – but for the cost. While cost may be an issue, the incidence of a food-poisoning outbreaks is worse.  It is recommended that the Food and Drugs Authority assemble all the professionals with food safety and quality backgrounds under one roof to deliberate on the way forward. It is possible for the Authority to work together with these professionals to offer services to small-scale food businesses at a very affordable fee in order to ensure they work within the confines of the law.

 

Way Forward

A three-pronged solution is proposed to get the key stakeholders all aligned regarding the food safety laws as so established. First, food industry players should know that the sector can only survive if they go strictly by the applicable laws. Creating an action plan out of the Public Health Act, 2012 Act 851, related to food is the first step in ensuring food safety and suitability becomes top of the agenda. Every effort in acquiring the necessary skills and making these available to the workforce brings the business to par with industry standards.

Regulatory authorities such as the Food & Drugs Authority, Ghana Standards Authority and the Municipal Authorities must raise their level of surveillance in the food processing space and trace poorly processed or packaged products to their manufacturers for appropriate corrective actions and sanctions to be applied. Inspections at processing facilities must be intensified and training of staff checked to ensure they are being appropriately trained. It is worth saying that what doesn’t get monitored doesn’t get done.

Consumer safety should be a priority for the food industry. Give your factory or processing facility a boost by employing the right kind of people to drive consumer satisfaction. A gun makes people flee but food attracts; however, food can sometimes be more dangerous than a gun.

 

 

 

 

Johnson Opoku-Boateng is the Chief Executive & Lead Consultant, QA CONSULT (Consultants and Trainers in Quality Assurance, Health & Safety, Environmental Management systems, Manufacturing Excellence and Food Safety). He is also a consumer safety advocate and helps businesses with regulatory affairs. He can be reached on +233209996002, email: johnson@qaconsultgh.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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