In this front-line expose, an environmental health inspector lays bare the real-world consequences of the “enforcement gap”. 

Cockroaches, mice droppings, cooking equipment covered in grease… it is fair to say that when my job gets serious, it isn’t for the faint hearted. But, this was the grim vision I was confronted with on a recent day’s work, inspecting an unregistered takeaway that had been operating for a month. Following up on a complaint, I entered the property through the shutters, watching food being ferried out to unsuspecting customers unaware their food was being left to cool in next to bags of rubbish in the rear yard. Food that was being prepared under stalactites of grease dripping from the extraction above cookers, by employees with no basic knowledge of food hygiene. Before we shut it down – immediately – food had been served from here for a month. Let that thought settle in.

I’m sorry to say that this is not a one-off. And the challenge for us to keep up with the minority of rule-breakers, who are putting people’s safety at risk, is becoming increasingly difficult to meet. The national regulator, the Food Standards Agency, has faced year on year cuts, are locally we are in the same position.

At the same time, the world around us is changing fast. Think about your own local high street, and how quickly takeaways change names and ownership. And think about how you order food now, the huge growth in online ordering presents another dimension to our work. There aren’t many town-centres where you don’t see food delivery bikes whizzing around the streets. Choice, and convenience is great – but making sure people aren’t cutting corners with your food safety is becoming harder.

When I say to people down the pub that you work as an Environmental Health Officer in East London, and they shrug and say so what. But, when I tell them that my job is essentially to stop them getting poisoned by their Friday night takeaway, and recite a few examples like the one above, they sit up and take notice. Everyone is a sucker for a rat in the kitchen story.

The truth is I do love my job, and I get to work with a huge variety of businesses, nearly all of whom want to play by the rules and keep things safe, clean, and healthy. From manufacturers to takeaways, market stalls to home caterers. The diversity is amazing – from sprouting seed primary producers, urban fish farming, African food market stalls to the many fast food chicken shops scattered along the main roads.

As well as routine inspections based on risk, we also undertake proactive project work and reactive complaint visits, and the team also deal with infectious disease cases in the area. It’s challenging, diverse and rewarding work. But it is something else too – it’s essential. Protecting people from unsafe food, illness and disease isn’t a “nice to have” in our society. It is something we all value. And that is why it is time to be honest with people and say we’re not now able to meet that requirement, and be the safety net society wants us to be. It is time for a rethink on how agencies like mine are resourced and supported – to give people the protection they have a right to expect.

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In this front-line expose, an environmental health inspector lays bare the real-world consequences of the “enforcement gap”. 

Cockroaches, mice droppings, cooking equipment covered in grease… it is fair to say that when my job gets serious, it isn’t for the faint hearted. But, this was the grim vision I was confronted with on a recent day’s work, inspecting an unregistered takeaway that had been operating for a month. Following up on a complaint, I entered the property through the shutters, watching food being ferried out to unsuspecting customers unaware their food was being left to cool in next to bags of rubbish in the rear yard. Food that was being prepared under stalactites of grease dripping from the extraction above cookers, by employees with no basic knowledge of food hygiene. Before we shut it down – immediately – food had been served from here for a month. Let that thought settle in.

I’m sorry to say that this is not a one-off. And the challenge for us to keep up with the minority of rule-breakers, who are putting people’s safety at risk, is becoming increasingly difficult to meet. The national regulator, the Food Standards Agency, has faced year on year cuts, are locally we are in the same position.

At the same time, the world around us is changing fast. Think about your own local high street, and how quickly takeaways change names and ownership. And think about how you order food now, the huge growth in online ordering presents another dimension to our work. There aren’t many town-centres where you don’t see food delivery bikes whizzing around the streets. Choice, and convenience is great – but making sure people aren’t cutting corners with your food safety is becoming harder.

When I say to people down the pub that you work as an Environmental Health Officer in East London, and they shrug and say so what. But, when I tell them that my job is essentially to stop them getting poisoned by their Friday night takeaway, and recite a few examples like the one above, they sit up and take notice. Everyone is a sucker for a rat in the kitchen story.

The truth is I do love my job, and I get to work with a huge variety of businesses, nearly all of whom want to play by the rules and keep things safe, clean, and healthy. From manufacturers to takeaways, market stalls to home caterers. The diversity is amazing – from sprouting seed primary producers, urban fish farming, African food market stalls to the many fast food chicken shops scattered along the main roads.

As well as routine inspections based on risk, we also undertake proactive project work and reactive complaint visits, and the team also deal with infectious disease cases in the area. It’s challenging, diverse and rewarding work. But it is something else too – it’s essential. Protecting people from unsafe food, illness and disease isn’t a “nice to have” in our society. It is something we all value. And that is why it is time to be honest with people and say we’re not now able to meet that requirement, and be the safety net society wants us to be. It is time for a rethink on how agencies like mine are resourced and supported – to give people the protection they have a right to expect.

< BACK