Authorities on their marks to ensure safety of food during Olympics
A specially created Food Safety Squad aims to ensure all comestibles sold during the Games come up to scratch
Most Olympic athletes laughed at the recent suggestion by Team GB's chief medical officer that to prevent the spread of potentially gold-medal-threatening bacteria, they should avoid shaking hands during the Games.
But it is not just competitors who are at risk, it would seem. When the world descends on east London in a few months, it is going to want feeding, prompting significant concern that hygiene standards may slip as stalls and restaurants seek to capitalise on the thousands of extra customers who will pass their way.
The Food Standards Agency has launched the Food Safety Squad, and is intensifying its efforts to ensure that all food sold, cooked and eaten during the Olympics is safe to eat.
"Having to serve more people than normal can create situations that don't arise under normal circumstances, such as the need to produce and store lots of food in advance," said Ben Milligan, an environmental-health inspector in Tower Hamlets, the east London borough on the doorstep of the Olympic Park.
Yesterday, he turned up unannounced at Raizes, a Brazilian restaurant on Hackney Road. When he was here a year ago, the restaurant was underperforming, receiving only two out of five for food-hygiene standards. More recently, the restaurant was set certain standards it must meet. After peering under the fridges and freezers for signs of "pest infestation", and using his probe thermometer to check various temperatures, he awarded the restaurant five stars out of five. It was one of the easier tasks of a busy schedule he has ahead.
More than 2,500 food outlets, including corner shops, kebab shops, restaurants and supermarkets, are regularly inspected by Tower Hamlets Environmental Health. "Last year, we shut 17 down," he said. "A further five closed voluntarily."
At the moment, 200 of the 2,500 are considered "failing", receiving either none or one out of five. The Food Standards Agency has given the council money to invest in improving these outlets, most of which are restaurants and takeaways, before the Olympics arrive.
"A lot of that money goes on training people," Mr Milligan said. "Some people don't know what a mouse dropping looks like, for example. They think it might be a burnt bit of rice, or a raisin."
During the Games, Mr Milligan and 24 other inspectors, like many council staff in the Olympic host boroughs, will be working 12-hour shift patterns. "We don't want people blocking highways setting up stalls and so on outside their shops. A lot of our job is proactive stuff – training and so on – but during the Games we envisage there will be a lot of reactive work to do, being called to premises and suchlike."
He insisted they will "not be stricter than normal" with restaurants. Consistency is important, and they don't want to stop businesses from taking advantage of the opportunities the Olympics will offer them.
Marco Oliveira, manager of Raizes, said: "We wanted to make improvements for the Olympics. We want to take advantage of it – it will be brilliant for the area."
Food delivery remains a problem for many businesses. Many existing delivery routes are on the Olympic Route Network, parts of which delivery vehicles will not be able to use at their usual delivery times.
"We're talking to people about to work with new delivery regulations," Mr Milligan said. "We're worried about bulk-ordering. Restaurants getting in three weeks' worth of produce and not having the capability to store it all safely."
London Councils and Transport for London have said they will waive the current "London Lorry Control Scheme" for the duration of the Games, which means HGVs need a permit to enter London on weekdays between 9pm and 7am, and 1pm and 7am at weekends, after a series of successful "quiet-delivery" trials. A code of practice written by Transport for London includes such restrictions as not to "whistle or shout to get the attention of store employees". The changes may even remain in place after the Olympics have concluded.
Ten specialist environmental-health officers will make up the Food Safety Squad, carrying out extra checks on food businesses in and around the Olympic Park, as well as in other towns and cities hosting Olympic events, such as the sailing in Weymouth, Dorset. McDonald's, one of the Olympics' biggest sponsors, will open its largest restaurant in history near the stadium.
Food businesses that do not make the grade on inspections will be given one-to-one training to ensure they are aware of, and follow, food-hygiene regulations. Tough enforcement action will follow where public health is put at risk.
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