New EC regulations on food safety were introduced into UK law in January and could spell trouble for retailers, says Nicola Cottam

The latest barrage of legislative red tape came into effect in January this year and condemns small businesses to yet more time-consuming paperwork. This time it revolves around EU regulations on food safety that force businesses to take responsibility for food safety by regularly assessing the risks within their business and keeping up-to-date records to prove due diligence. Businesses also need to register with their local authority and keep them posted on any changes to the business.

The changes aim to unify EU laws on food safety while at the same time simplifying existing UK legislation relating to hazard analysis - five EC regulations have replaced 17 old ones - but ultimately they could spell trouble for small operators.

Bob Salmon, food advisor at the Forum of Private Business, says: "Business owners will have to put procedures in place to analyse potential food safety risks within their business and develop a system to control these risks. If they fail to comply they could be taken to a magistrates' court or closed down if their failure constitutes a health hazard under the rules."

The new regulations stipulate that food business operators, including retailers, must register with their local authority, provide full details of the activities undertaken in their premises, and ensure the authority is notified of any subsequent changes. Businesses will also need to show that an effective food safety management system is in place, in line with Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) principles.

A lot of retailers who sell or prepare fresh food on site will already follow strict food hygiene regimes and have hazard analysis (HACCP) procedures in place as a legal requirement. In these cases there will be little else to do. Retailer Simon Biddle, of Biddles General Convenience in Redditch, Worcestershire, employs two chefs and two part-time members of staff to prepare 50 fresh dishes every day. He comments: "I think it will mean that c-store owners will have to be more vigilant about checking refrigeration temperatures, sell-by dates and the temperature of delivered food. The implications for a store like mine, in which fresh food is prepared daily, will be less stark and will simply involve more visits from environmental health officers."

It is likely that convenience stores that deal primarily in packaged goods will face the biggest challenges. However, some local councils are on the case and helping to ease the burden. Londis retailer Mike Howe, from Clyst St Mary, near Exeter in Devon, confirms he was contacted by his local council - East Devon District Council - just last month and was advised to attend a free council-run course to explain the regulations. "The council is running several half-day courses over a number of weeks to help businesses interpret the rules. I don't know how much will change for me because I already do regular risk assessments and have food safety procedures in place. The only element I'm uncertain about is whether or not I'm properly registered with the council - this is a bit of a grey area for me."

Not all retailers are as lucky as Mike. Ann Johnson, for example, is somewhat stunned by the task ahead for herself and her husband David who have run their shop - Johnsons of Sandhurst, Kent - for the past 21 years.
She says she faces putting staff through yet more food hygiene training in order to comply with HACCP principles, at a cost of about £400-500. This is in addition to the cost of employing extra staff to man the shop while she does the paperwork. She says: "We carried out a risk assessment a couple of years ago and put staff through food hygiene training when instructed by the environmental health officer, who said it was part of the requirements of imminent new legislation - which subsequently never materialised. But it's going to be a nightmare ensuring all our paperwork is correct and up to date.

"This type of legislation is helping to kill off small shops. I imagine it will be the death knell for a lot of stores."
Salmon confirms that previous food legislation has proved costly and he agrees that introducing further regulations could be fatal for some small businesses. He says: "A quarter of small businesses spend £100 a week on traceability systems. This effectively takes £8-£9m out of the sector and I predict a similar figure as a result of the latest regulations. If regulations like this upset the profitability of these businesses any more, even Gordon Brown would have good reason to hand in his resignation."

The regulations are also open to interpretation. Salmon admits: "No one really knows exactly what the new wording means and it will be a few years before this is ironed out and we know how it all relates in practice. As a result, it leaves room for different interpretations. I've already received many complaints from small businesses who have heard conflicting explanations."

The hope is that local councils will be able to clear up any misunderstandings before too many retailers are hung out to dry.

Summary guidance of the EC regulations

Food business operators, including retailers, must register with their local authority. When registering, they must provide full details of the activities undertaken in their establishments and ensure the authority is notified of any subsequent changes

Food businesses need to show that an effective food safety management system is in place, in line with Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles.

For more information visit the Food Standards Agency website at www.food.gov.uk, or speak to your local authority.

Traceability regulations

EU regulations on food traceability were introduced into the UK in January 2005. The regulations stipulate that retailers need to keep records of all food suppliers - wholesalers and producers - as well detailed accounts on products supplied and when, as well as the quality and weight of the food.

Just before the regulation came into force the Forum of Private Business carried out a survey on the potential effects on small businesses. It suggested that they would need about 3% of staff time to comply. Multiplied up to the 750,000 small food businesses in the UK, this would indicate that some £800m was likely to be taken from the sector.

A further survey carried out in March 2006 indicated that 92% of small businesses had a system in place; 60% said the paperwork took them about four hours per week. But it is the spread of costs that provides a better indication of the implications. It found:

Nil cost per week 25%
£1-£50 per week 20%
£51-£100 per week 30%
£100+ per week 25%

Those that reported a nil cost were very small businesses that put a copy of the delivery note in a box and hoped that they could find the right one if needed. Others had spent significant money on installing an electronic system, usually based on bar codes.

What is HACCP?

It stands for 'Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point'. It is an internationally recognised and recommended system of food safety management. It focuses on identifying the 'critical points' in a process where food safety problems (or 'hazards') could arise, and putting steps in place to prevent things going wrong. This is sometimes referred to as 'controlling hazards'. Keeping records is also an important part of HACCP systems.

The seven HACCP principles are:

1. Conduct a hazard analysis. Prepare a list of steps in the process where significant hazards can occur and describe the preventive measures.
2. Identify the Critical Control Points (CCPs) in the process.
3. Establish critical limits for preventive measures associated with each identified CCP.
4. Establish CCP monitoring requirements. Establish procedures for using the results of monitoring to adjust the process and maintain control.
5. Establish corrective actions to be taken when monitoring indicates that there is a deviation from an established critical limit.
6. Establish effective record-keeping procedures that document the HACCP system.
7. Establish procedures for verification that the HACCP system is working correctly.

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