organisation, praises the efforts of grocery retailers and reminds
A safe pair of hands
Dr Pamela Byrne, CEO of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, explains what the Covid-19 pandemic has meant for the organisation, praises the efforts of grocery retailers and reminds food suppliers of their obligations if supply chain shortages mean a change of ingredients or packaging.
LIKE every other organisation in the country, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has had to change the way it operates in the current environment. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought sweeping changes to the way we work. But for most of us, that work doesn’t just involve ensuring that the food on supermarket shelves and delivered by our local take-aways is safe to eat. Even in the midst of an international pandemic, the FSAI’s mission remains the same: to ensure safe and trustworthy food for everyone. Its CEO, Dr Pamela Byrne, is proud of the “hugely committed team”, who “really pulled on the FSAI jersey” in difficult times. “I’ve been amazed by the agility and flexibility of the team to mobilise and work through all this,” she says. “It’s not just the FSAI, though: that has been the case not just in the civil and public service but right across the private sector, companies who have changed their business model and production systems overnight.” The FSAI had been preparing for the Covid-19 pandemic for some time before it arrived on our shores, the CEO stresses: “We had been watching what was going on around the world, listening to our counterparts across Europe and listening to Government, and we started to plan internally for a situation if the Government indicated that we would have to work in a different way. We were about 24 hours from really getting it nailed down when the Taoiseach made his announcement on Thursday, March 12, regarding schools closing, so like every organisation, a significant cohort of staff were effectively unavailable on the Friday because they had to look after their children. “I asked the staff who could come into the FSAI to please do
so –we respected social distancing and took every precaution we could in terms of hand sanitisers etc. But we were also working hard to make sure everyone was technology-enabled and so that when they left the business on that Friday afternoon, they could work from home. We now have 100% of the organisation working from home.”
A fundamental shift
One of the big challenges was to ensure that access to the FSAI system from outside the building was secure and did not compromise any data or sensitive information. But the pandemic has meant a more fundamental shift in the way the Authority operates. “We had to work out what the pandemic and its effects mean for the FSAI as an organisation,” explains the CEO. “How do we still deliver on our vision of safe and trustworthy food for everyone? We had to take our mission and our strategic goals and embed them into a new way of working, with everyone working remotely. We had to move from an organisation that was built around a regular Monday-Friday, 9-5, to become a task-based organisation; figuring out what needs to get done, how we get it done and in what timeframe. We have navigated that successfully and the management team are working really well with both the senior leadership team and their individual teams.”
during this time,” Byrne explains. “We meet weekly and more regularly if we need to. We problem-solve as a team, highlighting what is working and what isn’t, and then communicate out to the broader organisation any key decisions that impact them and how they work.” The Incident Response Team aims “to identify potential issues and risks for food safety and food integrity and use the information at our disposal to work out what actions might be required to minimise, to mitigate or even remove those risks to food safety or to the integrity of the supply chain. It’s about monitoring what is happening, both globally and locally, and responding accordingly.” The FSAI coordinates the enforcement of food law via service contracts with a number of state agencies, including four who are involved in food inspections: the Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine; the HSE, via its Environmental Health Officers; the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority; and the Local Authority vets, who carry out inspections in smaller meat processing plants and slaughter-houses at local level. “We have been working with them to understand how their business continuity plans will ensure that we can collectively achieve our vision of safe and trustworthy food for everyone. We need to understand the constraints they are working under to recognise if that could lead to increased food safety risk or issues within the supply chain that could compromise the integrity of that supply chain. “We have identified a team of essential workers, who carry out essential functions within the FSAI and the agencies we work with; for example, if there was an outbreak of foodborne illness during this time, we need to ensure we could go out and investigate or engage with the businesses where that might be an issue. We have prioritised that and made sure that we have the systems to back that up internally.”
Food inspections amid the pandemic
The pandemic has meant that a lot of businesses are either closed or are not operating at full capacity, including sea fishing and foodservice in particular, which has greatly reduced the number of inspections needed. “It’s hugely disappointing for business owners and for society in general but the protection of public health remains the priority,” Byrne notes. “A lot of businesses have closed their doors, which has had a knock-on effect on the number of inspections that have to take place. Those businesses are suffering and it is very difficult for the business owners and employees, but what they are doing is helping to take pressure off the public health system by minimising the risk of transmission within their businesses. I hope over time, with the relaxation of the restrictions, that those businesses will survive and that we in the FSAI can help them in terms of providing them with guidance around food safety in the reopening of their businesses.” The FSAI are also examining where they can be flexible, albeit within the legal framework, in overseeing the delivery of a robust inspection system. “We are working with the various agencies on that in terms of how they can still deliver effective inspection without putting their own staff at risk or putting others at risk. That is a difficult thing to navigate because we still have a job to do. It is always important to have high standards of food safety and food integrity within food businesses, but even more so now.” With our health service already under severe pressure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the last thing it or the country needs is another health
emergency, such as an outbreak of foodborne illness: “We are making sure that the crisis plans we have in place within the FSAI and the inter-agency plans and protocols that we would use if we had an outbreak of food-borne illness or we had to deal with an incident of food contamination are fit for purpose.”
Mapping the supply chain
The current pandemic has “required every food company to look at its business and how it operates, to take the advice of Government, to put in place the measures that are required to protect workers’ health. The Government’s National Emergency Plan rightly recognised that food is a critical supply chain that needs to be maintained. So you then start to look at the critical parts of that supply chain,” Byrne notes. Many Irish food businesses had already put huge work into mapping their supply chains in recent months and years to deal with the spectre of Brexit, work which has actually benefitted them amid the current pandemic. “It has helped them to become more flexible when it comes to their supply chain, which has been a positive,” Byrne notes.
Retailers should be applauded
Retailers too have had to change the way they operate. Indeed, grocery retailers were the first to contact the FSAI when the pandemic began to affect life in Ireland. “Retailers were first out of the blocks in terms of contacting us about what the pandemic would mean for them. Very quickly, we started to get a sense of retailers’ concerns and what were their potential solutions to resolving those concerns,” Byrne recalls. “How were they going to provide a safe environment for consumers to shop to access critical supplies? Once we understood and learned from retailers what their particular issues were, we very quickly started to develop a set of FAQs on our website, and that has evolved and developed as we get new information. “For example, some retail groups operate a number of different types of stores and need to provide advice to all those stores. They can point their stores to the FSAI website, which has the advice they need to operate safely.” The CEO believes that Ireland’s retailers have really stepped up to the plate in their response to Covid-19: “Retailers should be applauded for the fantastic work they are doing. Their real commitment to ensuring that there is a supply of food, that the supply of food is safe and the work they are doing to maintain the diversity of food products on the shelf is incredible. It is maintaining some level of normality for consumers at a time when nothing is normal.” She warns against complacency, however, as the weeks go by: “As the retail sector continues to respond to this, it is important that their staff maintain their understanding of food safety. If they have new staff coming in, it’s vital that those staff are trained in food safety and hygiene. We have so many resources on our website regarding food safety and hygiene and we have significantly increased our engagement with social media since the middle of March.” The FSAI has seen a surge in followers on social media and visits to its website since the start of the pandemic, including almost one million hits on fsai.ie. The CEO stresses that stakeholder engagement is hugely important to the FSAI, who engage with different parts of the industry through a host of industry forums, including a retail forum, which allows the organisation to engage with Ireland’s biggest retailers on a regular basis. “It came into its own in the current pandemic in terms of getting information from retailers and communicating back to them what we thought was the right
Retailers should be applauded for the fantastic work they are doing. Their real commitment to ensuring that there is a supply of food, that the supply of food is safe and the work they are doing to maintain the diversity of food products on the shelf is incredible. It is maintaining some level of normality for consumers at a time when nothing is normal. “ ”
way to proceed,” the CEO explains. “We took advice from our counterparts across Europe, from the World Health Organisation, as they developed guidance for food businesses and for food regulatory authorities across the world.”
Communicating the facts
The most important thing for the FSAI in the Covid-19 pandemic was to “communicate the facts about the virus with respect to food safety,” Byrne stresses, “that we are communicating to the right audiences and ensuring they have the right information and advice that they need to operate safely. “We wanted to take off the table the potential connection that people may make between the virus and its potential risk to food. There is no scientific evidence that there is any risk associated with the virus and food safety. It’s really important for consumers to have trust in the safety of the food supply and not feel anxious about purchasing food.” The FSAI advice line has been incredibly busy, with close to 200 Covid-19 related queries. Many of those calls were from those in the restaurant sector who are trying to change their business to a take-away or delivery service, but some have been from food manufacturers who have encountered difficulties with sourcing certain supplies and may have to substitute ingredients. “What we are saying to those businesses is, ‘the legal responsibility to put safe food on the market is yours; our job is to make sure we can verify that’. The verification is done in a number of different ways and a lot of it relies on inspections, but we are relying on and trusting industry to do the right thing here. In the main, we have had very good experiences with the industry, who are doing a great job. You will always have a few businesses who will decide to take short-cuts and our message to them is that you should never be complacent about food safety. “When you are not able to get your normal supply of ingredients or of packaging or other products you might need, you need to assess the risk associated with bringing new products or processes into your business; that requires Good Hygiene Practice and HACCP to be considered and your food safety management system to be adapted to reflect any changes.” Allergens and allergen labelling are another concern: “If you are using different ingredients, different suppliers or you are making up your product using a different recipe, you need to be absolutely sure that you are not introducing new allergens into the
Dr Pamela Byrne, CEO, FSAI: “As the retail sector continues to respond to this, it is important that their staff maintain their understanding of food safety. If they have new staff coming in, it’s vital that those staff are trained in food safety and hygiene.”
product, or if you do, you need to communicate that on the packaging or labelling.”
Navigating uncharted waters
These are uncharted waters for food suppliers, retailers and regulatory authorities alike, Byrne admits: “We are doing our best to help businesses navigate their way through this. We are working with our colleagues in other European regulatory authorities and with the European Commission.” Indeed, the FSAI, along with other European food regulatory bodies, has asked the Commission to provide guidance on a number of issues, including a potential labelling issue which may arise as a result of supply chains being disrupted as the pandemic continues to have an effect. The FSAI website has a dedicated page for Covid-19 and food (www.fsai.ie/faq/coronavirus.html), which covers a variety of topics, including if the virus can be transmitted through food (no reported cases have been linked to contamination of food), advice for food workers, advice on open food displays, what to do if a food worker tests positive for Covid-19, what to do if you encounter a supply chain problem caused by the pandemic, and many more. Indeed, the FSAI’s FAQ’s page has been used as a template for other European food safety agencies, who have translated and adapted it for their own markets. The FSAI has worked extensively with FoodCloud in recent years and established guidelines on the handling and distribution of food parcels and other donated foods. In the current pandemic, many community groups and charities are coming together to help deliver food to vulnerable people in their communities and the FSAI guidelines can be hugely helpful in terms of ensuring that food is safe. The organisation is ready and willing to engage with any group who has queries in this area: “We have loads of resources. Please ask us if you need additional guidance. We are happy to communicate directly with these groups to ensure any food donations are safe for consumption.” The FSAI also regularly held free ‘Breakfast Bites’ in its office, where interested parties could access free information about food safety, from setting up a food business to the latest legislative developments. Given the current restrictions, such meetings are no longer possible, but the first FSAI webinar took place on May 12 with the theme, ‘Food Safety: Back to Basics’, and proved hugely successful as the organisation continues to reach out to food businesses.
Minimising the risk
The number of food alerts across Europe, including Ireland, has reduced greatly in the current pandemic, but Byrne feels that as things eventually get back to some kind of normal, those numbers will rise again. “Our biggest concern is that things the industry does now may potentially and unintentionally lead to food safety issues in the future,” she concludes. “We want to make sure the industry ensures food safety and integrity is a priority. I appreciate it’s difficult but the one thing that is really important is to keep food safety and food integrity as a priority in your business and understanding that by doing so you are minimising the potential impact on public health services, which are already constrained in dealing with the pandemic.”
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REOPENING MUST HIT RIGHT NOTE IF RETAIL IS TO REBOUND
AS a country, Ireland has been through the wringer and the past weeks have taken their toll on a great many people. With people falling ill and others losing their jobs or businesses, this is an unprecedented period for us all. The retail sector in the main is in a state of suspension; with only a number of designated essential stores remaining open and trading. Most retailers are now looking at if they will reopen and what the trading conditions will look like once some of the more onerous containment measures are lifted. For many, this will be a very difficult task.
We in Retail Ireland have been in consistent contact with our members and the relevant Government officials on the nature of a phased reopening of the Irish economy. If the retail sector is going to rebound in a robust way, a certain number of key supports must be put in place to ensure this. While Government has responded with a varying range of support measures, particularly in relation to short-term employment and temporary unemployment, many non-food businesses with no, or almost no, income are still facing monthly rent bills, and no prospect of being able to pay them.
We have called on the Government to urgently consider action to avoid a wave of permanent closures of businesses whose disappearance will have an immediate negative effect on the rest of the economy, on employment, on local communities and town centres.
A partnership approach
We need a partnership approach to support vulnerable but viable businesses. Commercial landlords and retail tenants must act in solidarity and dialogue to find mutually beneficial solutions to the present challenges facing shops closed during this period. This must be supported by a phased reopening strategy from Government, that safeguards public health, while also facilitating the incremental restoration of normal economic activity.
The retail sector recognises that it may be difficult for some of the measures to be implemented but new and innovative methods will need to be developed by Government with input from all concerned, be it tenant and landlord, or retailer and their local authorities. When it comes to rates, for example, if very little is done in the area of rates alleviation and businesses do not re-open, the very nature of our town centres will be severely diminished, with vacant lots becoming a mainstay in the high street. The development and renewal of town centres was at the forefront of many retailers’ minds before this crisis and they were working diligently with their communities and local authorities to achieve this. Retailers are the last people who want to see a mass
exodus from the high street but this could become a reality if some supports are not put in place.
A strategic approach to commercial rates
Along with local authority rates, the situation with commercial rents is an issue that will need underpinning in the reopening phase. The majority of retail categories remain closed and have been closed for a number of weeks. These are weeks where turnover has been at zero. With no income and mounting bills, retailers are feeling overwhelmed. Forbearance from landlords has been welcome in the instances that it has been offered, but a state-backed regime on commercial rents is vital for the wellbeing of the sector. A hands-off approach is not going to be enough in this instance; Retail Ireland is asking Government to implement a number of strategic approaches. It will take more than just fiscal stimulus to find a way through this; a number of avenues need to be looked at, including forfeiture freezes and mediation.
Retail has been hit hard by this crisis, but the sector is dynamic and innovative. Where retailers can help themselves, they will do this, but when help from Government is needed, that help needs to be robust. As we move into a phased reopening, the health of employees and the public will be at the forefront of retailers’ minds. Providing good jobs and consumers’ needs will continue as long as retailers are able.