Food safety chief on a mission to stop Brexit disruption from souring trade

‘I really love working for the public. I get a great sense of achievement from it’: Dr Pamela Byrne, chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, is keen to maintain high standards post-Brexit. Photo: Fennell Photography
‘I really love working for the public. I get a great sense of achievement from it’: Dr Pamela Byrne, chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, is keen to maintain high standards post-Brexit. Photo: Fennell Photography

Shawn Pogatchnik

Pamela Byrne remembers the moment she ordered a gourmet burger on her first trip to the US - and was aghast to find it rare pink on the inside. "I couldn't eat it," she recalls. "I was brought up in a world where you need to cook burgers right through because we all understand how the bugs can get into the meat. And if you don't cook them right through, that doesn't cook out the bugs."

As chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) since 2015, Byrne still finds herself teaching similarly basic lessons to chefs and others who make the food we eat. It is just one part of her role as Ireland's senior enforcer for food safety standards in a world where tolerances vary widely, particularly beyond the unified regulation of the EU, where some 1,500 pieces of legislation set rules on everything from labelling to listeria.

That task will grow even more complex when the United Kingdom exits the EU, because it is Ireland's top trading partner for foods and ingredients used in many of our 50,000 food-related businesses.

"At the moment, the majority of food that we import into Ireland is already checked in another country because of the way the European Union operates. And when the food comes into Ireland through the single market, in the main it is safe. Most of that product comes from or travels through the UK and we do not need to check it," she told the Irish Independent in her office.

But once the UK becomes in trade terms a 'third country' to the EU, its food will face the same checks for bacteria, chemicals, allergens and other threats as apply now to goods from far more foreign lands.

"What we absolutely know is going to happen when the UK becomes a third country, whenever that might be or however that might look, is we will have an increased level of controls on British imports, because those imports are coming from what is designated a third country," she said. "At the moment, we're really getting to grips with and understanding how our control framework will have to evolve post-Brexit. Certainty around that would be wonderful, but we don't have certainty yet."

While the FSAI still operates today with a 20pc smaller budget than before Ireland's fiscal crisis a decade ago, the agency in the past year has deployed five senior specialists into a new full-time Brexit preparations team. One of their key tasks is to pursue 'regulatory alignment' with the UK's Food Standards Agency regional office so that, even if Britain crashes out of the EU, food safety officials can strike agreements that keep both nations working from the same rulebook.

"For us, it's critical that we maintain regulatory alignment so that product moves North and South across a frictionless border," she said, offering an example.

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"Milk is collected from farms in the South, it's brought North to be processed, it's brought back down and incorporated into ingredients in the South, and vice versa. This seamless movement is a critical part of economic growth and development for rural Ireland."

Last year, Byrne and her counterparts in Belfast signed the latest in a string of agreements committing the FSAI and Food Standards Agency to address, she said, "any issues that arise as a result of the UK leaving the European Union".

Maintaining common safety standards in law and practice would obviate the need for either country to treat the other's food imports with greater suspicion.

"That would be my hope, that we can maintain regulatory alignment. I know that our colleagues in the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland have this as an agreed, shared objective," she said.

"From our regular conversations with them, we know that they, like us, are very much focused on protecting consumers.

"I've worked with these people for the last five years; this organisation has worked with them for the last 19 years. We have very good relationships and we've no reason to believe that they would deviate from existing rules. But we've got to watch that very closely."

Byrne sees the enforcement of allergen rules as being particularly subject to surprise Brexit reactions. Right now, the EU requires food containing any of 14 allergens to label their presence in bold on the ingredients list.

"When the UK becomes a third country, it is entitled to set up its own rules and regulations. As it stands at the moment, they have indicated that they are going to maintain compliance with the European legal framework for food. And we believe them when they say that. But they will have the ability to diverge from that," Byrne said.

"One member of our Brexit team is expert in labelling legislation and she is increasing her level of knowledge on all other pieces of legislation around allergen labelling. Her job will be, when the UK leaves, to look at the divergence in regulation," Byrne added.

While the EU requires the presence of even trace amounts of mustard to be spelled out in bold on European food labels, a post-Brexit Britain might decide otherwise.

"The UK may decide that particular allergen isn't as important. They may have done a survey of their population and they have no sufferers of an allergic reaction or intolerance to mustard," she said, noting that in such circumstances, the FSAI would help people to "understand the increased risk to consumers of product that comes from the UK and to help industry understand that Ireland has to comply with European law".

Brexit poses another potential risk to food safety, simply because so much flows to and from Ireland via UK transit routes.

Use of higher-mileage and lower- frequency options, involving ports in France, Spain or the Netherlands, could delay deliveries and increase quality problems for Irish beef and dairy goods bound for continental Europe - as well as southern European fruit and vegetable deliveries to Ireland.

For now, the FSAI places its primary focus on ensuring that Irish-produced food is safe and transparently labelled for consumption at home and in 180 markets globally. To that end, the agency deploys 1,100 inspectors contracted by four partners - the Department of Agriculture, the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, the HSE's environmental health unit and local authorities - into slaughterhouses, processors, supermarkets, restaurants and cafes, in search of violations and shortcomings. Last year, some 60,000 samples taken were tested at State and HSE-operated labs, leading to 51 food alerts and product recalls, chiefly after detections of salmonella and listeria.

This year, the FSAI has begun using a new DNA analysis tool, developed in partnership with the IdentiGEN lab, that allows each ingredient in a food product to be identified - including, most importantly, those not on the label.

In its first test of 45 samples of Irish-made products, it found two violations containing mustard and gluten, the latter a particular danger to the approximately 3pc of Irish residents with celiac disease.

Byrne said it is crucial for the FSAI to develop and deploy the latest technology to keep pace with an Irish food industry that is growing in sophistication and scope by the week - with industry plans to double milk production and boost beef production by 40pc by 2025.

"Every enzyme, every preservative, every additive, every processing agent, anything that is done to food, has to be in compliance with the law," said Byrne, a scientist by background who holds a doctorate in environmental toxicology from UCC and a master's in aquatic resource management from the University of London.

She spent more than a decade working in research, innovation and ecotoxicology at the Department of Agriculture, including a secondment to Brussels as an adviser to Ireland's then EU commissioner for research, science and innovation, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.

In 2013, Byrne became director of regulatory policy and intelligence for the Irish office of Abbott Nutrition, which is a division of Chicago-headquartered Abbott Laboratories.

"It was high-pressure and busy and interesting and very rewarding. I loved it," she said, noting her work involved coming to grips with the distinct regulatory environments of key markets for Abbott products, such as dairy-based infant formula in China. She also learned much about the differences in food standards law, regulation and enforcement between the United States and the EU, including the Americans' zero-tolerance policy for even dead listeria bacteria common within ready-to-eat meals.

"Whereas, in Europe, we have a tolerance. We allow a certain level of listeria in products. We would urge consumers who are vulnerable not to consume that product. So, for example, women who are pregnant shouldn't eat soft cheeses or pates, and they should be very careful about vegetables and fruits," she said.

"One would love to live in a world where we don't have any. But you know what? We're surrounded by microbes. They're everywhere.

"Our job within the authority is to make sure that we are minimising the risks associated with those bugs and protecting consumers' health by doing that."

Byrne said she finds her role atop the FSAI an ideal fit, with "my scientific expertise and my passion for protecting consumers". She added: "I really love working for the public. I get a great sense of achievement from it."

She is certain FSAI scrutiny of food has saved lives in Ireland, "but if you asked me to put a number on it, I couldn't. We don't measure our impact in that regard".

Over the coming decade, she wants the FSAI to use new scientific and data analysis techniques to become more proactive in identifying threats before they appear on Irish shelves or plates.

"I hope we don't have to react to too many food crises. But it is not a case of if, it's a case of when," she said.

"Because as the global food system evolves, as supply chains grow, as technology becomes more sophisticated, and consumers drive demand with higher expectations, as an organisation, we need to be ready for new threats."

She noted that one of the organisation's highest-profile actions is its monthly press release highlighting the latest restaurants and food processors ordered to close. To her, this is the most mind- boggling part of the job.

She said: "We closed down 95 businesses last year. What really frustrates me is that we come up against the same problems all of the time: unhygienic practices, no pest control or bad pest control, lack of running water, lack of warm water for hand washing, product that's stored incorrectly, raw product stored next to cooked product in a fridge or on a counter.

"I kind of scratch my head and go, 'why are we still experiencing these basic issues year on year?'.

"At the end of the day, I know that the majority of businesses in this country do not want to make people sick. But there are very simple things businesses can do to make sure they don't make people sick. They have to take those simple steps."

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