MY BROTHER Bong has just returned from the USA and immediately he made sure he had a fill of the many Filipino food that he has missed. After just a few weeks, he complained of stomach sickness which led to a discussion on comparative food safety practices.
According to the USA National Center for Biotechnology Information, there are at least a dozen federal agencies implementing more than 35 statutes of the food safety system. Twenty-eight House and Senate committees provide oversight of these statutes.
Four agencies play major roles in carrying out food safety regulatory activities: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services; the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the National Marine Fisheries Service of the Department of Commerce. More than 50 interagency agreements have been developed to tie the activities of the various agencies together.
In addition, each State and local health department are responsible for surveillance at their levels. States and territories have separate departments of health and of agriculture. The health department has the authority over the restaurants while the agriculture handles the supermarkets. US FDA’s Food Code provides scientific standards and guidelines that states and localities may adopt for food safety in restaurants and institutional food settings. The code includes temperature standards for cooking, cooling, refrigerating, reheating, and holding food. It also recommends that inspectors visit restaurants every six months.
Restaurant inspection results with letter grades or number scores are published conspicuously. In general, restaurants are docked a certain amount of points for violation of rules. Those numbers are in the actual inspection report, which most jurisdictions make public. A perfect score is 100. For states and countries that use letter-grade system, a 90-to-100-point score is an A, 80 to 89 is a B and so forth. Some cities and states require the restaurant to prominently display its most recent grade. However, to scrutinize the specific violation, one has to refer back to the inspection report.
The said score is merely a snapshot of the daily operations of a restaurant. Technically this was only done at least once or twice a year and the inspectors usually does the inspection at daytime. The inspection report may be an accurate representation of what they saw but doesn’t tell the whole story. In the end, despite the grading system and all that, the final verdict is still left to the consumer. At least these inspections are public services designed to keep restaurant-goers healthy and informed.
In the Philippines, food safety is under the turf of Food and Drugs Administration in coordination with Department of Agriculture, Department of Health, Department of Interior and Local Government, implementing the Republic Act No. 10611 or the Food Safety Act of 2013 together with its implementing Rules and Regulations published in March of 2015. In the said law, Food Business Operators are mandated to designate a Food Safety Compliance Officer (FSCO) who has passed a prescribed training course for FSCO recognized by DA and DOH. This FSCO has to ensure the safety both of the food and the establishment being registered. In the event of food safety incident, the said individual must also be the one to report as well as implement control measures.
One gets the impression however that most inspections probably happen before the establishment becomes operational and later if there is an incident that has already taken place. One likewise wonders if there are indeed FSCOs and what training they were required to undergo. A number of travel and health advisories for people bound to the Philippines cautions against food-borne illness that can spoil their visits.
This writer even found an article in the USA Today website cautioning their citizens with the street foods, drinking water and even restaurants in the Philippines as they noted that “not all restaurants comply with governmental regulations, because of the large number of small establishments across the country and the lack of training on and enforcement of the laws at the local level.”
The Medline website cited a survey conducted on food safety knowledge and practices of street food vendors in a university campus in Quezon City. Vendors were found to be not too knowledgeable in terms of food legislation and waste management. A significant gap between knowledge and practice on food safety was observed and it was primarily attributed to the tendencies of the street food vendors to compromise food safety for financial issues. Confusion in food legislation is also established as the purveyor of food safety regulations was not the local government health unit but the business concession office of the campus administration.
The information one can read about food safety in the Philippines in travel blogs and similar advisories should serve as a wake-up call for the implementors of food safety in the country. A system of restaurant grading like that in the US may be a good idea to contemplate so that customers are at least informed of what they should expect. Food entrepreneurs big or small should take responsibility in ensuring the cleanliness of the food being served and to provide continuous food safety education to their staff.
Dave Roos, in a commentary on restaurant health inspections in the US, has this valuable tip. The state of the bathroom speaks volumes about how much management cares about food safety. If the boss cares enough to clean the bathroom every hour, it means an attention to detail that likely crosses over into the kitchen. But if the toilet is otherwise, who knows what else might be “crossing over” into the kitchen.
Benel D. Lagua is Executive Vice-President at the Development Bank of the Philippines. He is an active FINEX member and a long time advocate of risk-based lending for SMEs.