Training of the ‘person in ‘charge – what does this new SA food safety ruling mean?

Hopefully, by now, you will be aware that SA’s hygiene regulations have changed and the updated version of R638 of 2018 includes a brand new requirement for the ‘person in charge’. What are the implications here?

The revamped R638 of 2018 [Regulations Governing General Hygiene Requirements for Food Premises, the Transport of Food and Related Matters, Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, (Act No 54 Of 1972)] stipulates this:

10. A person in charge of food premises must ensure that:
(1) (a) he or she is suitably qualified or otherwise adequately trained in the principles and practices of food safety and hygiene, as appropriate, and that the training is accredited or conducted by an inspector, where applicable…

There is a lot of debate about who needs to take one of these training courses, what they involve and how long the certificate lasts.

Well, anyone working in the food manufacturing or hospitality industry has a responsibility for ensuring that the food that they handle and serve is safe. Foodborne illnesses can be severe, which is why this commitment is taken so seriously. Ignorance can be no excuse for unsafe food and now the law has ensured this.

The significance of the person in charge

The new regulation places the focus on the person in charge. You may argue that this person is a manager and does not handle food so why should he/she be trained?

This has been the subject of much research around the world. In a very large study conducted by the CDC in the US, restaurants with certified kitchen managers (CKMs) were shown to have a lower risk for food borne illness outbreaks.

Although legislation may differ from state to state in the US, most require a manager to complete an accredited course and pass a test to show knowledge of food safety to be recognised as a CKM.

A further study by the CDC showed that a formal process of training and certification resulted in certified managers and workers having greater food safety knowledge than non-certified managers and workers who were trained in-house.

This formal process of training is not unique to the US. Similar systems are used in the UK and EU to demonstrate due diligence with the EU guidelines and legislation. Australia also has a mandatory requirement that food processing organisations have at least one Food Safety Supervisor on their staff at all times.

In simple terms, it is not wise to have the blind leading the blind. And having a qualified person in charge provides a basis to ensure there is adequate and competent supervision of the legal requirements and, of course, the corresponding liability that goes with failing to do this.

But what level of training is adequate?

Unfortunately, contrary to what many people expect, the law does NOT define the level of training. Neither does it provide for a certification programme.

However, a common thread in legal requirements is the mandate that anyone handling food should have ADEQUATE training for their job. But what is adequate? What is adequate for the person in charge?

Adequate time? Adequate level of understanding of food safety hazards and risk factors in the food premises? Some have argued that provided all the regulations and responsibilities for the person in charge are addressed in training, this is adequate.

Around the world, this is dealt with in several ways. In the US, states have defined the minimum standards for training in terms of content. This is done either through the recognition of specific programmes but, more importantly, through a central process of certification. ANSI (American National Standards Institute) accredits providers and is the custodian of the examinations to ensure a minimum standard is maintained.

In the UK and EU, there are three commonly-recognised food safety certificates: Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3.

Level 2 is by far the most widely used and recognised, as it gives a very good understanding of all aspects of food hygiene. Level 1 covers only basic hazards and is usually offered to food handlers, and Level 3 is aimed at managers and those implementing food safety policies.

In Australia, the nationally-recognised Food Safety Supervisor training course is designed to ensure that qualified delegates will:

  • Understand and apply food safety law and theory to create practical strategies that will protect customers from food-borne illnesses.
  • Manage physical, chemical and biological hazards in the workplace to protect workers and customers.
  • Design a Food Safety Program that will effectively manage all risks arising in a business.
  • Manage safety in the supply chain, including monitoring deliveries for quality assurance.
  • Prepare the business for the event of a food safety emergency, such as an allergy incident or pest problem.
  • Represent the business to local government.
  • Oversee staff training in food safety.
  • Know how often to wash hands.
  • Demonstrate competence in safe food preparation.
  • Have access to the necessary equipment and protective gear, such as gloves and aprons, which are regularly sanitised to a safe level.
  • Have an understanding of health and safety policies that apply in the workplace to protect their welfare and the welfare of customers.

Sounds like a person in charge, and their responsibilities, don’t you think?

Considering R638 states that the “person in charge”, in relation to food premises, means a natural person who is responsible for the food premises or the owner of such food premises, as the case may be, the Australian example would provide us with a good benchmark to move forward.

How long is a piece of string?

The person in charge is likely to be a busy person. So, any time out of the business in training is a considerable investment. So, what is the minimum time you should spend on training?

Well again, unfortunately, the law does not define this. Times range from 2.5 days for current FoodBev SETA-accredited training providers’ offerings in South Africa, to 20 hours in Australia, to five days in the UK. The amount of time is linked to the amount of information covered and the level.

You would be well advised to rather choose a longer option than rush this process and miss vital information to well manage food safety in your facility. Remember it is your personal responsibility to ensure you are qualified – not just trained.

It is important to note that municipalities can also interpret these requirements in their own ways. Municipal by-laws may add further clarity or more prescriptive requirements so make sure you consult with your EHP in this regard.

What accreditation?

In an unfortunate hat trick, this too, is not defined by the legislation.

In SA, there are a number of accredited providers and programmes designed primarily for food handlers. Many US and UK options are open to us, too, but a word of caution in terms of differences in our legislation.

When selecting a course, bear in mind that the content is essential but the methods of instructional practice are also critical and, ideally, this training should also contribute toward continuous professional development.

Any training better than none?

Although this is a new requirement in our legal framework and there is still much confusion, ensuring that SA food businesses are led by more competent persons in charge cannot be faulted.

We all stand to benefit from this increased knowledge and this will hopefully assist in changing the food safety cultures of many businesses as a new appreciation for the real risks they face is revealed. Perhaps in this case it should be more about the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law.

Authored by Wouter Conradie, the MD of Africa Operations at NSF, based in Cape Town. Wouter can be reached at [email protected]

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