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Everybody who sells or serves food to customers must ensure food safety. It is crucial that the food sold does not endanger public health, therefore adequate control systems must be in place by law. In the UK and the EU, food safety requirements are clearly identified in legislation (EC) 852/2004, which is designed to ensure food is produced safely and hygienically.
This regulation is set out in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which means that Regulation (EC) 852/2004 still applies in the UK since Brexit, as the UK Government created something called “retained EU legislation”, which ensured that the EU laws which applied to the UK before 11pm on 31 December 2020 could be kept in place.
What is HACCP?
The HACCP process (General Principles of Food Hygiene. CXC 1-1969) is used by the food industry to prevent the spread of foodborne diseases. It has become the universally recognised and accepted method for food safety assurance. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognised its importance in preventing foodborne diseases for over 20 years and has played an important role in its development and promotion.
HACCP stands for the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system, and is a proactive process control system that identifies where hazards might occur in the food production process and puts into place stringent preventative actions to take to stop the hazards from occurring.
By strictly monitoring and controlling each step of the process, there is less chance for hazards to occur. In other words, it is basically a risk assessment approach that ensures that the end product, food, is ready for consumption and is safe to eat.
HACCP is intended for use in all segments of the food industry from growing, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, distributing and merchandising, to preparing food for consumption. Each segment of the food industry must provide the conditions necessary to protect food while it is under their control.
HACCP is designed so that it can be used at any and all stages of the food production process. There are two key components of HACCP:
- Hazard Analysis – Determining what microbiological, physical or chemical risks are associated with a process. There are four main types of food safety hazards:
– Microbiological – Involving harmful bacteria.
– Chemical – Involving chemical contamination.
– Physical – Involving objects getting into food.
- Critical Control Points (CCPs) – These provide the control of the process and the proof of the control. Some examples of CCPs include but are not limited to:
– Cleaning and maintenance.
– Staff standards and hygiene.
How HACCP works and the HACCP principles
The HACCP team
The first stage is to assemble a team of individuals who have specific knowledge and expertise about the product and process. The size of the team and their areas of responsibility will depend upon the business. The team may also benefit from input from outside expert consultants, for example about potential biological, chemical, allergenic and/or physical hazards. These experts will not be permanent members of the HACCP team.
Describe the product
The HACCP team provides a general description of the food, ingredients and processing methods. Then the method of distribution should be described along with information on whether the food is to be distributed frozen, refrigerated or at ambient temperature.
Identify the intended use and consumers
The team then describes the normal expected use of the food. The intended consumers may be, for example, the general public or a particular segment of the population such as babies or infants, immunocompromised individuals or the elderly.
Design a flow diagram to describe the process
The flow diagram should provide a clear, simple outline of all the steps involved in the process that are directly under the control of the establishment. The flow diagram can also include steps in the food chain which come before and after the processing that occurs on the premises.
On-site review of the flow diagram
The HACCP team should perform an on-site review of the operation to verify the accuracy and completeness of the flow diagram, and modifications should be made to the diagram as required.
After these first five preliminary steps have been completed, the following seven principles of HACCP are applied.
Principle 1: Conduct a hazard analysis
The first step is to identify any hazards (what could go wrong) to food safety and the level of the risk of them happening i.e. low, medium or high.
Principle 2: Determine critical control points (CCP)
In this step, identify those points in the process where controls can be used to minimise, eliminate or reduce the effect of the hazard, and decide what action needs to be taken if something goes wrong.
Principle 3: Establish critical limits
This HACCP principle is focused on setting critical limits for each CCP that has been determined, helping to keep them within acceptable levels. Critical limits may be based upon factors such as:
- Physical dimensions.
- Moisture level.
- Water activity.
- Titratable acidity.
- Salt concentration.
- Available chlorine.
- Sensory information such as aroma and visual appearance.
Principle 4: Establish monitoring procedures
Once what to measure has been established, this HACCP principle is all about determining how and when to measure the CCPs, making sure that the procedures are being followed and are working.
Principle 5: Establish corrective actions
These are the safety protocols that can immediately be put into action when required when any CCP measurement has exceeded a critical limit for a particular hazard. Corrective actions should:
- Determine and correct the cause of non-compliance.
- Determine the nature of the non-compliant product.
- Record the corrective actions that have been taken.
Principle 6: Establish verification procedures
Verification involves all activities, other than monitoring, that establish the validity of the HACCP plan and ensure that the HACCP system is operating according to it. Among others, these include designating team members to oversee specific activities, appropriately scheduled validation activities, etc.
Information needed to validate the HACCP plan often includes:
- Expert advice and scientific studies.
- On-site observations, measurements and evaluations.
Principle 7: Establish documentation and record-keeping
Accurate record-keeping is required to ensure traceability and to prove, should a food safety incident happen, that the business has taken all reasonable precautions to produce food safely and that procedures are working and being followed. Usually, the records kept for the HACCP process should include:
- A summary of the hazard analysis, including the rationale for determining hazards and control measures.
- The HACCP Plan.
- Listing of the HACCP team and assigned responsibilities.
- Description of the food, its distribution, intended use and consumer.
- Verified flow diagram.
- HACCP Plan Summary Table that includes information for:
– Steps in the process that are CCPs.
– The hazard(s) of concern.
– Critical limits.
– Correction actions.
– Verification procedures and schedule.
– Record-keeping procedures.
These are the steps that need to be taken to manage food safety risks in any food business. The HACCP plan is a “living document”, meaning it must be regularly reviewed and updated as appropriate.
Examples of food hazards and prevention
Microbiological – for example:
- Salmonella – Found in eggs, poultry, meat, unpasteurised milk or juice, cheese, fruits and vegetables, spices, and nuts.
- E. coli – Found in undercooked ground beef, unpasteurised milk or juice, raw milk cheeses, raw fruits and vegetables, contaminated water.
- Campylobacter – Found in raw and undercooked poultry, unpasteurised milk, contaminated water.
- Listeria found in ready-to-eat deli meats, unpasteurised milk or juice.
The best way to prevent microbiological hazards from affecting customers is to implement robust processing and storage strategies. The use of packaging technologies during processing like vacuum sealing hinders bacterial growth. Proper temperature management for storage can dramatically reduce microbe growth, and effective sanitation practices throughout the distribution chain will reduce cross-contamination of food products
- Chemical – chemical hazards are identified by the presence of harmful substances that can be found in food naturally, or unintentionally added during processing. Some chemical hazards include naturally occurring chemicals, such as mycotoxins, intentionally added chemicals, including the preservative sodium nitrate, and unintentionally added chemicals, like pesticides.
Similar to preventing biological hazards, proper cleaning procedures and sanitation requirements are the best methods of prevention. Training employees to follow strict guidelines is essential in preventing a chemical hazard, as well as limiting the use of chemicals to those generally recognised as safe and ensuring that chemicals are stored in designated areas separated from food products.
- Physical – physical hazards are foreign objects that are found in food products. They are either naturally found in the specific item, for example stems in fruit, or not normally part of the food item, such as hair or plastic. Unnatural physical hazards are generally more dangerous to health, whereas natural physical hazards can be harmless.
Prevention of physical hazards focuses primarily on thorough inspection of food, and strict adherence to food safety regulations, such as HACCP. Businesses should take proactive steps in eliminating the potential of a physical hazard with, for example, equipment maintenance, appropriate dress codes and PPE.
- Allergenic – the 14 allergens listed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) are: celery, cereals containing gluten (such as barley and oats), crustaceans (such as prawns, crabs and lobsters), eggs, fish, lupin, milk, molluscs (such as mussels and oysters), mustard, peanuts, sesame, soybeans, sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if they are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million), and tree nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts).
Prevention of allergenic hazards focuses on cross-contamination and correct food labelling. This also applies to additives, processing aids and any other substances which are present in the final product.
Food safety legislation
The Food Safety Act 1990 is primarily concerned with food standards and definitions, including quality, composition, labelling and presentation.
As previously mentioned, Regulation (EC) 852/2004, familiarly known as the HACCP Law, contains the general hygiene requirements for all food businesses. Domestic regulations for each country in the UK have been drawn up and implemented to support it including:
The government website states that “If you run a food business, you must have a plan based on the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles. You might be inspected, and the inspector will need to see your records.”
The food business operator (FBO) is the natural or legal person responsible for ensuring that the requirements of the law are met within the food business under their control.
Food safety law requires all food handlers to be trained in food hygiene matters commensurate with their duties. This means that food handlers must receive food safety training that is relevant to their work and duties.
It is generally accepted that although a formal qualification is not required, all food handlers should be trained to a minimum of Level 2/foundation, supervisors to Level 3/intermediate and managers to Level 4/managing food safety. Anyone who has responsibility for implementing and maintaining food safety management systems (HACCP) should receive specific training for this.
Enforcement officers will ask to see evidence of food hygiene training and if it is insufficient, an improvement notice may be served, and the hygiene rating would be affected.
Food hygiene offences
Food is prohibited to be placed on the market if it is unsafe: because it has been rendered injurious to health or is unfit for human consumption.
The Food Safety Act 1990 describes the offence of rendering food injurious to health as “it is unfit to eat, or so contaminated that it would be unreasonable to expect anyone to eat it”. It is also an offence for anyone to do anything to food that would make it harmful to health, even if that person is not running a food business.
Offences that relate to food quality and content include selling food that is not of the “nature, substance or quality” demanded by the consumer. It is also an offence to falsely describe, advertise or present food. Food may be perfectly fit to eat and of the appropriate quality, but may not be described fairly or accurately, and is therefore likely to mislead the purchaser.
Breaches of food safety and food hygiene regulations
According to the Sentencing Council UK, for offences under the General Food Regulations, the maximum penalty when tried summarily, that is in a Magistrates Court, is an unlimited fine and/or 6 months’ custody. When tried on indictment, that is in a Crown Court, the maximum penalty is an unlimited fine and/or 2 years’ custody.
The offence culpability ranges are:
- Very high – Where the offender intentionally breached, or flagrantly disregarded, the law.
- High – Actual foresight of, or wilful blindness to, risk of offending but risk nevertheless taken.
- Medium – Offence committed through act or omission which a person exercising reasonable care would not commit.
- Low – Offence committed with little fault, for example, because:
– Significant efforts were made to address the risk although they were inadequate on this occasion.
– There was no warning/circumstance indicating a risk to food safety.
– Failings were minor and occurred as an isolated incident.
The magistrates will also take into consideration the harm or potentiality to harm when applying penalties and/or sentencing. They also take aggravating factors into consideration such as:
- Previous convictions, having regard to, the nature of the offence to which the conviction relates and its relevance to the current offence and the time that has elapsed since the conviction.
- An offence committed whilst on bail.
- An offence motivated by financial gain.
- Deliberate concealment of illegal nature of activity.
- Established evidence of wider/community impact.
- Breach of any court order.
- Obstruction of justice.
- Poor food safety or hygiene record.
- Refusal of free advice or training.
In all cases the court will consider whether to make ancillary orders. These may include:
- A Hygiene Prohibition Order – These orders are available under both the Food Safety and Hygiene (England) Regulations 2013 and the Food Hygiene (Wales) Regulations 2006. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own separate legal systems. In deciding whether to impose an order, the court will want to consider the history of convictions or a failure to heed warnings or advice in deciding whether an order is proportionate to the facts of the case. Deterrence may also be an important consideration.
- Disqualification of Director – An offender may be disqualified from being a director of a company in accordance with section 2 of the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986. The maximum period of disqualification is 15 years (Crown Court) or 5 years (magistrates’ court).
- Compensation Order – Where the offence results in loss or damage the court will consider whether to make a compensation order.
Who enforces the legislation?
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is responsible for the official control of food. Enforcement functions are delegated mainly to local authorities, where environmental health practitioners (EHPs) regulate food hygiene and safety legislation and Trading Standards Officers (TSOs) regulate those relating to food standards and labelling.
Both EHPs and TSOs advise upon new designs and structures of businesses as well as product safety and description.
Enforcements for hygiene matters detailed in Regulation (EC) 852/2004 are set down in the Food Safety and Hygiene (England) Regulations 2013 (and associated regulations for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) and include:
- Rights of entry at a reasonable time and right to inspect.
- Powers to serve notices (hygiene improvement, prohibition and hygiene emergency prohibition).
- The power to prosecute for failing to comply with the regulations.
Local authorities are required to make sure that:
- The frequency of inspection reflects the risk posed by the operation.
- Inspections include an assessment of potential food safety hazards.
The FSA annual report (2019/2020) on Food Hygiene found that the percentage of food establishments across three UK countries (this report does not cover Scotland) achieving broad compliance or higher was 90.4% compared with 90.7% in the previous year.
In Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) terms, ‘broadly compliant’ is equivalent to a hygiene rating of 3 (generally satisfactory) or above. In England there was a decrease from 90.4% to 90%. In Wales there was a decrease from 93.1% to 92.7%. In Northern Ireland there was an increase from 94.1% to 95.4%.
- Food hygiene – The total number of establishments subject to at least one type of enforcement action across the three countries decreased by 1.3% from 158,128 in 2018/19 to 156,066 in 2019/20.
- Food standards – The number of establishments subject to at least one type of enforcement action across the three countries increased by 5.8% from 24,164 in 2018/19 to 25,553 in 2019/2020.
The benefits of the HACCP process
The use of HACCP by the food industry offers a number of benefits as it:
- Is based on science and is internationally recognised.
- Focuses on identifying and preventing hazards that may render food unsafe.
- Permits more efficient and effective government oversight, primarily because the record-keeping allows investigators to see how well an establishment is complying with food safety laws and following practices that reduce the risk of unsafe food over a period of time rather than how well it is doing on any given day.
- Places responsibility for ensuring food safety appropriately on the food processor at their stage of the process.
- Helps food processors compete more effectively in the world market and reduces any barriers to international trade.
Although this does not mean that HACCP provides 100% assurance of food safety to consumers, it does mean that a food business is doing the best job possible for safe food production.