Environmental Health Officers are tasked with the responsibility of making sure that all food-related businesses meet their legal obligations at every step of the supply chain. They check that all food items sold or consumed across the UK are safe and are appropriately labelled. While most people have an idea of the EHO responsibilities, not all individuals understand their powers. One question many ask is, can an EHO issue you an on the spot fine?
The answer to this question is no. An Environmental Health Officer cannot issue on the spot fines. However, they have a wide range of other powers which are discussed in detail in the Food and Safety act 1990. Their powers are categorized into three headings:
The local authority (often the city or town council) holds a register that lists all food premises in their area. An authorized Environmental Health Officer has the right to enter any food premises during reasonable hours. Reasonable hours would normally be considered to be the opening hours of the business but this is not always the case. They can gain entry to determine if there are any breaches of the various food acts and regulations.
An EHO is usually limited to the area in which they are employed, an Environmental Health officer from Newcastle would not normally visit a business in Cardiff. However, if they are following a chain of production and distribution back to source, they are allowed to enter premises in other counties as long as the food is later sold or processed in their region. But, they can’t take any enforcement actions such as seizing the food. They need to liaise with the local authority in the area for further actions besides inspection. In this situation you would often find that a visit would include members from both authorities to ensure a smooth visit.
If denied access, EHO can apply for a warrant from the local magistrate. If the occupier fails to grant access to an authorized EHO, the officer can be accompanied by local police officers or technicians certified by the local authority to gain entry by force.
Once the EHOs are inside food premises, they have the power to:
I. Request to see all the records that relate to the business for inspection. These include computerized records that have to be available in hard copy if needed.
II. Ask staff questions. While giving false information or misleading the EHO is an offense, no person is required to give out information if they feel it may lead to self-incrimination.
III. Take photographic and video evidence.
IV. Take samples of food products
After an EHO conducts a planned inspection or responds to a complaint by conducting an investigation and finds there are issues, they have a variety of options available. If food premises are found to be unhygienic and uncooperative, the EHOs can:
I. Deliver a hygiene improvement notice,
II. Take you to a court of law and ask for a prohibition order,
III. Serve operators with a hygiene emergency prohibition notice and then apply to the magistrate for the provision of a hygiene emergency prohibition order.
If you are issued an improvement notice it will provide you with a list of areas in which you need to improve. It will specify the exact items that the EHO feel need attention. You will then be given 14 days to take action or appeal against the notice. If the time elapses and the EHO determines that no action was taken, they can now institute legal proceedings.
If you are found to have committed an offense against the Food Safety Act or failed to adhere to other food regulations, they can request the courts impose a hygiene prohibition order. This is usually served to individuals and businesses that are viewed as public health risks. In this situation, the EHO can advise the court to target a specific product if they think that production technique is unsafe. The probation order can also instruct the occupier to stop operating other businesses that directly relate to the product or enterprise under investigation. An EHO can advise the local authority to revoke a prohibition order against a premises. However, an order issued against an individual can only be reversed by a court of law.
In case the EHO perceives the food business to be an imminent threat to health, they will issue the business owner a hygiene emergency prohibition notice. A copy of the notice will be displayed in a visible position within the premise, to show the business must cease trading immediately. The local authority must then apply for a hygiene emergency prohibition order from a magistrate within three days. Owners can oppose this order at a hearing. The hygiene emergency prohibition order can be revoked by the EHO when he believes that the risks no longer exist.
EHOs also have the power to collect samples from food premises for further analysis by experts. Environmental Health Officers can take small portions of the items being sampled. If the items being taken amount to a substantial financial loss, you can apply for compensation. Only experienced officers can take the samples from any premise to avoid further contamination. All details, including batch numbers and date codes, should be labelled on the samples.
EHOs must inform the business owner when they take a sample, and if the products are not manufactured but only packaged on site, they also need to notify the manufacturer. Manufacturers and owners have the right to view the results of the examination when it is complete. EHOs are required to divide the samples into three portions if possible. One goes to the owner, the other one to the Public Analyst, and the EHO keeps the last one.
It is vitally essential for the EHO to ensure that samples are stored at the appropriate temperature to avoid any changes that might be occur whilst the samples are in their possession. They will usually have samples examined in the lab within 2 to 4 hours to ensure accuracy.
The separate laws in Wales and Northern Ireland do provide one offence for which a fixed penalty notice can be issued. Failure to display your correct score. For this there is the option of attending court or paying a fixed penalty within 28 days. However the EHO cannot take payment on site, if you are given this option you should only pay through official means as described on the notice paperwork.
While Environmental Health officers have all the powers discussed above, they are encouraged to promote the benefits of safe food production through educating businesses. Although various food acts guide them, EHOs can achieve much if they can demonstrate to managers that adhering to safety standards is for the good of their business, and not all about the law. A poor hygiene rating can have just as serious impact on a restaurant or food service business as a poor Tripadvisor score would.
Now that you know the powers of an Environmental Health Officer, you will be ready when one of them comes to your place and tries to issue an on the spot fine!