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EVERY COUPLE OF weeks an email lands in inboxes of media organisations around Ireland.
Sent by a Dublin PR firm on behalf of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, it outlines the closure orders issued to food businesses around Ireland. These emails don’t, however, give the reasons why a restaurant was closed or what steps were taken to remedy the situation.
They will be covered every time by almost every outlet – this one included.
But do those stories tell the full story?
In conversations with restaurant owners and operators – all of whom declined to be named – the system has been criticised.
Business owners and managers say that the food inspections can be overly punitive, and that the way the closures are communicated to the media are unfair, don’t give the full picture, and can have massive repercussions for their restaurants.
One restaurant manager says that a closure order against his busy café was over “something trivial”, but was still reported as a “closure”. While he does not argue that the Environmental Health Officer (EHO) who served the order has a job to do, he feels the system used is “blunt”.
“There you are, you’ve worked your whole life to build a business and it’s all over the papers and internet that you don’t look after your food. At least, that’s the perception.
How is that fair?
In total the FSAI says that 2016 saw food inspectors serve 94 closure orders, three improvement orders and nine prohibition orders on food businesses throughout the country.
A closure order is served where it is deemed that there is or there is likely to be a grave and immediate danger to public health at or in the premises.
They can refer to the immediate closure of all or part of the food premises, or all or some of its activities. An improvement order may be issued by the District Court if an improvement notice is not complied with within a defined period.
An improvement notice is served when it is deemed that any activity involving the handling or preparation of food or the condition of a premises is of such a nature that if it persists it will or is likely to pose a risk to public health.
A prohibition order is issued if the activities (handling, processing, disposal, manufacturing, storage, distribution or selling food) involve or are likely to involve a serious risk to public health from a particular product.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) says that closure orders are served to protect the public. Chief Executive Dr Pamela Byrne said last month:
Closure Orders, regardless of the legislation under which they were served, indicate that not all food businesses are complying with the law and, as a result, are potentially putting consumers’ health at serious risk.
In the main, restaurant operators feel that the issue stems from a difference in language.
One operator whose business received a closure order says that the negative publicity could sink businesses.
“We didn’t feel like our closure was our fault as it related to outside work. But the press release didn’t give any of that context.
“When that’s your reputation, that context matters. The public should be told whether it’s a structural issue, but food is what gets the headlines.
It should all be better communicated.
“It just feels like a massive red mark on your business for something that might have been a genuine mistake, or was fixed within an hour.”
Adrian Cummins of the Restaurant Association of Ireland told TheJournal.ie that this issue has been on the agenda for a long time.
“We’ve been talking about this for three years, but the FSAI won’t meet us on it.
“The press release goes out, the closure order is sensationalised, but the loss of a good name is unquantifiable.
“Even when the issue is resolved, the closure order is on the FSAI website for six months.
“The whole system needs to be overhauled.”
In March 2016, this website and most Irish outlets covered closure orders placed on a Dublin burrito bar -Little Ass Burritos.
Many failed to report that the orders had been lifted and the FSAI only gives out details of closures through Freedom of Information requests, which can take weeks to process, so an incorrect view developed for a small number of people that the businesses had closed.
In response, the owners of Little Ass took to Facebook to explain:
“To clarify on 17 February our colleagues in the EHO visited our store on Dawson street and ordered that we move some of our preparation activities off site. This is due in large part to the size of our store and the fact that over the last 2 years we’ve doubled our customer numbers. Anyway we were ordered under what’s called a Partial Closure Order not be confused with a Full Closure Order.
This happened at 11:00am that morning and by 11:30am a half an hour later everything was resolved prior to even opening that day. We weren’t required to close nor have we ever had such orders placed on us.
The day after the post, they followed up by posting that they had just had one of their busiest days. More than a year later, this case is still raised by some in the food industry as an example of the current system’s shortcomings.
“Those guys aren’t big businesses who can just brush this stuff off. That case alone proves this (the closure order system) is a blunt interest.”
In a statement, the FSAI said they are reviewing their practices.
We are currently developing a strategy for how we can provide more information on Enforcement Orders to the public.
The current system was chosen as the most suitable at the time when we started publishing the information. The legal basis for the FSAI to publicise the Enforcement Orders is in the FSAI Act, 1998.
That, a restaurant owner agrees, is needed.
“I just want them to look at the current system and say ‘how is this actually working in practice?’ and maybe think of restaurants a bit more.”