How new food rules could ruin restaurants

Stricter food rules won’t make you any safer – but they could ruin many small restaurants

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

The coalition said they would tame health and safety, which would be great for those of us in the food -business. But they, like the public, like to blame Brussels, and the problem is not with Europe, or not often. EU law is basically Napoleonic, and sensible. It places the onus on the operators to ensure safety, and to be able to prove that what they do is safe. If it turns out not to be, then they will be prosecuted and likely clapped in jail. Fair enough if you have maimed or poisoned someone.

Our law is basically Roman and we like to stipulate every tiny detail in statues. Where Europe will use words like ‘reasonable’, ‘as necessary’ or ‘appropriate’ and lets the operator determine what that means, we produce reams of regulation to flesh out European law and reams of ‘guidance’ on top.

The E. coli scare has precipitated a rash of guidance from the Food Standards Agency, which means cooking almost everything to destruction. You can achieve a pinky-grey steak or burger (seared to 75 degrees), but all other meats and offal require the -following:

60°C – 45 minutes

65°C – 10 minutes

70°C – 2 minutes

75°C – 30 seconds

80°C – 6 seconds

If one of the above is not used (and proven to be achieved in practice), the Food Business Operator must acquire validation or be in breach of the law.

This was clearly drafted for factories, fast food chains or big banqueting kitchens, not for restaurants. But as far as the law is concerned a producer of food is an operator. Are they seriously expecting a busy chef to stand over the grill with six different orders, stopwatch in one hand and probe in the other? Maybe just possible for a kitchen with a £20,000 combi-steamer, but a small restaurant?

In the US, they let the customer take the risk, though menus come with the unsavoury note on the bottom ‘Eating raw or undercooked meat can cause food poisoning.’ It does not seem to deter anyone.

Here, if chefs stuck to the temperatures and times decreed, there would be no more pink duck breasts, liver or kidneys, no more steak tartare, no more rare steak or burgers.

There is not much danger of rare-steak policing, but hygiene inspections can throw up handy matters for the ambitious environmental health officer with which to win brownie points back at the council. Especially if his victim is a high-profile telly chef, jealous of his reputation, such as the Michelin-starred Marcus Wareing. He was told by an environmental health officer that he had to have two vacuum-packing machines, one for raw stuff and one for cooked. He had been downgraded, without warning, from the top hygiene rating to the bottom because he only had one. Never mind that his kitchen, and everything in it, is spotless (he’d never have had a five-star rating if it weren’t), that he had not poisoned anyone, that cross–contamination will never occur if the machine is cleaned properly, that even the manufacturers say two machines are unnecessary, and that the two-machine rule is guidance, not law. Never mind all that. Marcus could not hang around to argue. He bought the unnecessary machine and his five-star rating was restored.

Prosecutions often result because legislation is unclear. Which is hardly surprising when Defra, the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency all vie with each other to dream up health-and-safety law.  And there are myriad campaigning consumer organisations pressing for more legislation. Our regulators are responsible for far more craziness than the European Parliament.

I hope I am panicking needlessly, but since Europe is redrafting a raft of food safety law, which our lawmakers will inevitably ‘refine and clarify’, and the body that used to point out the effect of laws on small food businesses has died through lack of money, I fear that labelling rules designed for manufacturers will end up applying to restaurants. Imagine the consequences of having to list ingredient quantities, calorie counts, allergens (already to apply to restaurants from December 2014) and health dangers for every dish on the menu! The only way to operate such a menu would be standardisation, as in -McDonald’s.

Out would go innovation, invention and imagination: goodbye Menu of the Day and special orders, goodbye local sourcing — for which supply cannot be guaranteed; goodbye small producers dependent on restaurants; goodbye many good eateries. Goodbye gastronomy.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Prue Leith’s autobiography, Relish: My Life on a Plate, is now in paperback.

Show comments
  • Charles Martel

    You are right to say that EU law is basically Napoleonic,
    but that itself derives largely from Roman law. English law has developed very
    differently. The problem which has arisen in this and so many other areas where
    EU law is impacting on our lives is in our very different approach to its
    application. Put simply, the European approach has been to pass prescriptive
    laws the degree of enforcement of which is tempered by local political
    considerations and, yes, common sense. Here, laws once passed tend to be diligently enforced irrespective of any such subjective considerations.

    This, combined with the British genius for pettifogging bureaucracy, has led to the sort of Kafakaesque situation in which we now find ourselves where a galaxy of government agencies and quangos compete with each other to gold-plate and subsequently rigorously enforce every regulation and directive emanating from Brussels to an extent which astonishes other EU member states.

    It is hard to imagine any Michelin five-starred chef in France or Italy experiencing the sort of nonsense Marcus Waring was subjected to, but it is becoming increasingly common here and may well have the dire outcome for the restaurant trade that you predict.

    In the meanwhile I`m off to prepare steak tartare for my lunch which I shall probably follow with an unpasteurised camembert all washed down with a bottle of good burgundy.

  • jonseer

    You will not get e coli infection from salad veg washed in clean water, nor from cold meats produced in sterile conditions. But you will get it b…..y quick soon after some infected hands contact it.
    Living in Portugal where before my ham and cheese roll, or salad, or come to that any food is prepared and served, all people involved in food preparation have to wear hair covering hats also plastic film gloves. I am astonished to see UK TV programmes with cooks etc unclad and unhatted while talking over food & handling food in a bad & arrogant example to all in the matter of hygiene and cleanliness.

    • RobWatkin

      In my Cafe the Environmental Health Officer told us we should not wear gloves when preparing food as the use of them discouraged regular and effective hand washing. In this case I think he was right.

  • belaglik

    “Out would go innovation, invention and imagination: goodbye Menu of the Day and special orders, goodbye local sourcing — for which supply cannot be guaranteed; goodbye small producers dependent on restaurants; goodbye many good eateries. Goodbye gastronomy.”

    Exactly! It’s Big Food that has been the source of most of these major outbreaks, not small farms and mom-and-pop restaurants. People are looking for alternatives to the big chains and seeking out eateries where they can get to know the people who prepare their food and the pimply faced kid working the register is the owner’s child who has a stake in the success of the business and will face the wrath of parents if he or she forgets that. Places where complaints will be met with embarrassment and a genuine attempt to make things right, not “oh, God, another a**hole! Comp the meal and get them the hell outta here!”

    McFood Inc. is aware of this and knows that these small-time operators are a serious threat so they are in favor of these stringent regulations. They can absorb the costs (by cutting back on employee benefits, pay, and hours even more, if that’s possible) and since the quality of the food is not a concern to begin with, they are the ones that have the politicians in their back pockets pushing these onerous laws.

  • george

    Good article. I also think that in Britain as here in America, there is far too much pandering about allergens on food labelling. (But there’s too much pandering or provision for every sufferer of everything, no matter how uncommon the affliction/inconvenience/condition.) If someone is allergic to a particular allergen (and there must be thousands of allergens), surely it is up to him to ask if he is unsure about what is in a meal. As if, for instance, people allergic to sulfites (and they are hardly legion) don’t know that wine contains natural sulfites. But every wine drinker in the world has to have the sulfite fact trumpeted on every label, just in case. And in Britain you get the nanny’s wagging finger about alcohol, as well. Leave us alone, already.

    The most ridiculous obligatory warning — in the form of ugly orange labels affixed to every Venetian blind sold — is the one about children potentially being caught up in the cord. Can you imagine this? How on Earth could anyone accidentally entangle himself in the cord? Perhaps in the history of the world, one child in one hideous chain of events (though they are unimaginable) might come to harm because of an in-situ Venetian blind. But because bureaucrats have incredible imaginations and an even more incredible solicitude for every unfortunate and imbecile on the planet, we have to look at ugly, patronizing labels.

  • Beaumont7

    Maybe they should actually visit Brussels and have a rare steak or a filet americain (steak tartare), the latter, raw marinated beef, a very popular sandwich filling amongst Belgian teenagers, tastes like paté. A request for a well done steak would not be welcome in any restaurant in Brussels.

  • dalai guevara

    The industrialisation of the production, processing and serving of ‘foodstuff’ is most progressed in Britain, not continental Europe – to suggest otherwise would be grossly misleading.

    Even the word itself oozes confidence of how right we are.

  • Kam

    Prue Leith, with respect, no. You are mistaken in several ways. Considering your reputation and status, you have some responsibility to the public for your comments relating to food hygiene, which is why I have written this comment. Notwithstanding parts of this article are just plain unfair to people responsible for guiding, advising and enforcing legislation for safe food. My points are thus;

    1. Our food law IS EU law. Food Hygiene (England) Regulations 2006 was brought in to bring us in line with three sets of EU regulations in the UK.

    2. You are right about the pink, rare poultry and offal, but not about rare steak. That can be as rare as you like, so long as the outside is seared.

    3. I feel you are implying Environmental Health Officers are somehow petty, sneering bureaucrats who ‘victimise’ food business operators. Let me tell you – before we are even allowed to step foot outside the council office and into a business kitchen, a qualified EHO has to be

    a) Educated up to a degree level in a CIEH accredited degree or masters.

    b) Have appropriate food hygiene inspection certificates.

    c) Have passed a professional exam, a professional interview, and submitted a portfolio of 25 reports of 2000 to 2500 words (if completing the PPP), each chronicling our professional development, obtained during
    d) a professional placement around one year in length, traditionally in a local council department.

    We do NOT score ‘brownie points’. We are trained to approach each case with impartiality, and with a view to the improvement of practices in whatever premise’s we find ourselves in at the time. Enforcement is a last resort for us.

    4. The people who give *us* guidance in the Food Standards Agency are far and away more experienced with food microbiology than we are, and we are no slouches. They don’t pull these temperatures out of thin air.

    5. The most worrying aspect of this article. There are indeed no laws to insist on two separate vacuum packers, but there are plenty placing responsibility chiefs to prevent cross contamination between raw and cooked meat. Vacuum packers are hard to clean between uses, and almost impossible to ensure a single E.coli O157 , which is potentially an infective dose, doesn’t survive to contaminate cooked meat.

    In 2005 157 people, mostly children, were affected by an outbreak of E.coli in South Wales, where a supplier was using the same machine to vacuum pack raw and cooked meat.

    A little boy, a 5 year old called Mason Jones DIED because of this.

    Try telling poor Mr and Mrs Jones that second vacuum packer is un-necessary.

    6. The allergen list. Yes, its going to be a major job to sort it out for producers, which is why they are getting at least 18 months to get ready. The major problem there is when an allergen sufferer tries to eat something they safely ate before, but the recipe has been changed without their knowledge. This system will warn sufferers, and prevent yet more un-necessary food related fatalities.

    And george? Very young children cannot naturally lift their head to prevent themselves suffocating if caught in a blind cord. It happens far more often than you seem aware. The experts trying to prevent this from happening as much as they reasonably can through making manufactures place this information on the blinds do *not* have to take into consideration your aesthetic preferences.
    Good grief.