Belfast City Council this week is highlighting the invaluable work undertaken by its staff in order to ensure that the food we eat is fit and safe for consumption.
With the start of Food Safety Week today (Monday 4 June), which this year has the theme #ProtectingYourPlate, the Council is showing how its front line service interacts with consumers, producers and local businesses to keep potential hazards off our tables.
Belfast City Council employs 22 people in food safety work. During the past year, these staff carried out more than 5,500 visits to premises in the Belfast area, took almost 1,500 food samples and responded to around 1,000 requests for service.
Most of the work undertaken by Council staff is pro-active, as they seek to protect the reputation and maintain the standards of our local food and drinks industry.
A vital area of this work is supporting the many new food and drinks businesses that have been opening in Belfast in recent years, and continue to do so on a regular basis. Staff offer help to anyone thinking of opening a new business, and assist those who have just done so, through ongoing advice and specialised workshops. Over the last year, more than 200 new businesses were helped in this way.
Hundreds of Complaints Dealt With
The food safety team also received almost 630 complaints about food or food premises over the past year. Ninety-seven per cent of these were responded to within 48 hours, and 84 per cent of the complaints were investigated and resolved within eight weeks.
As well as ensuring that businesses produce safe food, the Council also investigates cases of food poisoning, to identify the source and prevent those who are ill from infecting others. Staff investigated 100 confirmed cases of food related infectious diseases last year. All of these were dealt with within 24 hours. Officials also dealt with 178 alleged food poisoning complaints.
The Council carries out a number of initiatives to support ethnic communities and businesses, working with the large number of ethnic caterers in the city, making information available relevant language and employing the services of interpreters where necessary.
However, the Council’s work is not confined to the city itself, but also covers the 6,000 ships which berthed at the Port of Belfast each year. About 60 per cent of Northern Ireland’s seaborne trade is handled at the port, and Belfast remains Ireland’s busiest ferry port, with more than 1.5 million passengers and crew and more than half a million freight units passing through it. The Council supports this industry through the delivery of Port Health services from purpose built office and inspection facilities located within the harbour estate.
Port Health Facilities
The Port Health facilities are approved by the EU for the importation and clearance of a range of high risk foodstuffs. Last year, Port Health officials examined 315 consignments and carried out 482 documentary checks of imported foods. Foods from non-EU countries, including nuts and nut products, confectionary, curry products, fruit, rice and wine were inspected and examined for contaminants such as aflatoxins, excessive or non-permitted additives and pesticides. The unit also validates imports of organic foods from Third World countries, involving documentary and identity checks. Last year, 33 organic consignments were validated.
The Port Health service also issues ship sanitation certificates to all types of ships, including the growing number of cruise ships that visit the city each year. In 2018, there are 117 cruise ship visits planned and Council will carry out ship sanitation inspections on these ships when they dock, if required. These inspections include an inspection of the food preparation areas, sampling water in the swimming pools, testing for bacteria in elevators and on door handles, and also engaging with the cruise ship’s medical centre to ensure any illnesses on the ship are contained within the ship.
Last year, 488 ships arriving at the port were inspected to ensure compliance with international and UK health and hygiene requirements, including food safety and control of infectious diseases. More than ship sanitation inspections were carried out and certificates issued to the vessels.
Food production, transport and sale at retail and catering establishments plays an essential part in our local economy. Food and drink accounts for £672 million of the GVA for Northern Ireland, with the food sector as a major employer, having almost 45,000 employees in Northern Ireland. Good quality, local and safe food has a key role to play in developing local tourism. Belfast City Council’s staff are the people who are protecting your plates by ensuring that the food we eat is safe.