PICking safe hands for food

Filed on February 2, 2011
PICking safe hands for food

Dubai Municipality has made it a must for food establishments to have trained PICs (persons-in-charge) for ensuring safety of food.

In a classroom of 16 students, Saleem Shahzad sat with his ABCD cards ready. As his trainer Abdul Nazar Khalid shot a multiple choice question, Shahzad, along with his batch mates, raised “B” indicating the right answer.

This was not a scene from a regular classroom and Shahzad is not an ordinary student. He is the owner and manager of Student Biryani, a popular Pakistani restaurant in Dubai. What he was being taught by Khalid, general manager of BSS World Consultancy, were the lessons that will ensure better food safety in his outlets.

Others in the class were executive director, operations manager, quality control officer, kitchen supervisor etc. of various other leading food outlets in Dubai. What brought all of them back to a classroom is the compulsory training and certification course for PICs or Persons-in-Charge (food safety managers) in eateries.

Every food business already has a manager. But studies in Dubai show that very often these managers are not trained in food safety and they do not consider the safety of the food served in their establishment as their primary responsibility. Mostly, these managers and owners are driven by other business priorities and it is the food handling staff who attend trainings.

From this year, the Dubai Municipality has ordered managers and supervisors in every food business to go through a mandatory food safety training and certification programme that would qualify them as a Person-in-Charge.

Dubai Municipality’s Food Control Department, which launched the PIC project in January, wants every food outlet —from cafeterias, restaurants and hotels to hypermarkets, manufacturers and trading companies—to have a PIC present on their premises throughout the working hours.

This requirement from DM will make the managers and supervisors responsible to oversee all aspects of food safety in the establishment and ensure the accountability of their colleagues and the higher management in applying the food safety standards prescribed by the Food Control Department.

Donning the role of “the link” between the food business, its customers and municipal inspectors, PICs must always be present at their worksite and have direct control over employees handling storage, preparation, display or service of foods. Conducting self-inspections and training their colleagues are other major responsibilities of the PICs.

The municipality has tied up with three awarding companies to provide accredited PIC management programmes for trainers from food safety consultancies. With one of them, Highfield Awarding Body for Compliance (HABC), firstly securing accreditation from the Dubai Accreditation Centre (DAC), the PIC programme has kicked off with several certified trainers from different food safety consultancies offering the course in different locations. The second Awarding Body, Taylor Shannon International (TSI), is in the process of getting the accreditation from DAC.

All food establishments will soon be getting official notification from DM asking them to nominate their PICs who will have to undergo customised training programmes.

According to Khalid Sherif Al Awadhi, the director of Food Control Department, over 100 PICs have completed the pilot project since December, heralding a new era in Dubai’s food safety scenario.

“Dubai is a leader in food safety in the region and we want the food establishments to maintain world class standards. Apart from protecting our consumers, we think food establishments here have a higher level of responsibility because Dubai is a major trade and tourism hub. We don’t want the food here to cause any illness to anyone,” he said.

For the PIC project, he clarified that, a food business does not have to recruit additional staff to meet the requirements. PICs should be identified from within the current team and should ideally be the owner of the business or the manager who is running the business. Only such people can make good food safety decisions, whether it be to improve cleanliness and hygiene or to ensure that adequate facilities are provided to staff to ensure that food is handled safely.

By the end of this year, any business dealing with food should have a PIC. International food safety expert Richard Sprenger, who assisted Dubai Municipality to develop handbook containing guidelines for PICs, estimates that about 10,000 to 20,000 personnel will have to be enrolled for the PIC courses to cover all the food establishments in Dubai.

This is because larger outlets will have to appoint more than one PIC. “A hotel with five restaurants may need 10 PICs [to cover different shifts],” he said.

Two levels of training

Food safety courses in level two and level three are being offered for PICs. Bobby Krishna, Dubai Municipality’s Senior Food Studies and Surveys Officer, said the level for the PIC training courses will be dependent on the nature of the outlet and the skills required from their staff.

“Every outlet must have one PIC at any given point of time. Which is the level (of their course) is decided by the skills required, the nature of their business and the type of risk associated with the food. Managers of cafeterias may need level two certification training where as a restaurant with several food items on their menu that involves many complex processing steps may require a level three training and certification,” said Krishna.

He said most restaurants fall in the high risk group requiring PICs with level three certification. The managers of restaurants are expected to know more about food safety than a manager in a cafeteria because a restaurant handles several cooked food items that are prepared in advance and sometimes go through refrigeration and reheating process after cooking. The risk associated with food-borne diseases always goes up with the number of processing steps.

Though the handbook, the regulations and the inspection system are the same for both the levels of training, PICs of level two have the advantage of learning things in their own language. “Those who are not competent in English can first go for level two and then later do the level three course as well,” said Krishna, who jointly developed the programme content for the guidebook along with Sprenger, the chairman of Ltd.

A “Desktop Inspection” segment in the training programme of both the levels provides the opportunity for “inspection simulation” using a computer. It assists the candidates to spot the food safety risks with the help of photographs of common wrong-practices in eateries. It will also show them the corrective actions.

Abdul Nazar Khalid, who trained the first batch of PICs, said scores of photographs taken during kitchen auditing and inspections would be used for the Desktop Inspection segment to show failures in adhering to food safety standards. “When you explain things using visuals, it will grab the attention of the candidates quickly. Such images will remain in their memory and help them to quickly take note of those violations and act immediately. Self-inspection is an important responsibility of PICs,” he said.

Guidebook for PICs

The PIC guidebook, being printed in English, Arabic, Urdu and Malayalam, will be an encyclopaedia for operating safe food businesses. It gives all the details related to Dubai’s food regulations and is prepared in such a way that there is an answer for all day-to-day food safety concerns faced by eateries. The details of violations and the fines for them and the corrective measures are also included in the PIC handbook.

“Everyone talks of inspection...but what is that? You ask a question and you will find the answer in it (the PIC guidebook). That is the way it is designed. All information in the handbook is evidence-based and with reference from Food Standards Australia, US Food and Drug Administration, British Retail Consortium, Food Safety Authority of Ireland etc. We have made sure that it is fairly consistent with any regulation accepted internationally and nationally,” said Krishna.

Abdul Jaleel, General Manager of HABC, said the guidebook is tailor-made for food businesses in Dubai with details of food safety risks associated with common types of food seen in popular cuisines here.

With HABC— a sister concern of Ltd, UK’s leading supplier of compliance training materials—securing the DAC accreditation for personnel certification in food safety, Jaleel said the PIC course offered by HABC gives an international qualification compliant with the standards specified by local authorities.

According to Sprenger, the PIC course objective is to go much wider than a qualification. “This is not just a qualification. It is a programme ensuring that not only people get information and knowledge, but also that they are implemented, monitored and independently evaluated.”

He said the Dubai Municipality has invited PhD researchers from North Carolina University in the US to conduct a research on the impact of the programme at a later stage.

“I am not aware of anything like this being done on food safety. We are not talking about just the Middle East, but across the world. There won’t be any involvement of the DM or the certification bodies in that research which will study if the programme has resulted in food safety improvement,” said Sprenger. The implementation of the programme, he said, will ensure that all the people in the food industry know what exactly is required by Dubai Municipality.

Agrees Shahzad. “Though I have already done a level four course long back, I learnt a lot of new things about the Dubai legislations through this course. This programme is very informative and it’s a wonderful effort by DM to improve the health standards in Dubai,” he said.

“I’m very happy to be a part of the very first batch of trained PICs. This knowledge is very important for us. Once the owner has awareness about health and safety, only then can he train his people and enhance his human resources,” he said.

Changing perceptions

The PIC programme, the primary purpose of which is to ensure more managerial control over food businesses, is expected to gradually change the perception about municipal inspections as well.

“In these three days, I saw a whole new picture of Dubai Municipality. People are usually very scared of the inspectors. That attitude is going to change now,” said Shahzad.

The personal interaction by DM officials has made a lot of difference in the client-municipality relationship.

“We gained very much confidence by speaking to the Director of Food Control. He assured us all the support for implementing the programme. I’m sure DM is struggling hard to help us in this. They are empowering food business people to look after their business and improve their standards by themselves. We really appreciate it and we are committed to do our best. This is something really very niceand it is going on the right track,” said Shahzad.

“Food safety is something which is all about the life of people...the customers. We have to be very careful in this. I think the course content will help in improving the business and reducing wastage of food. Our customers will also be more satisfied. I think this knowledge is very important for my business to go on an international level as well,” he added. In that sense, PIC also stands for the concept of protecting the “Profit, Image and Customers” of food establishments.

DM’s senior food safety expert Basher Hassan Yousif said soon the project will ensure that the food trading sector also implements the PIC concept.

“We need PICs for all food trading companies to educate the importers know the food regulations and requirements here. This can actually contribute in reducing so much of food going waste because of the minor violations of local requirements by importers,” he said.

In 2009, about 500,000 tonnes of the 2.8 million metric tonnes of food items imported to Dubai were rejected. The mandatory training of the managers in trading firms is expected to help them understand theDubai regulations and solve the problem at the country of origin itself. This, subsequently, will reduce food wastage and enhance food trade.

The ultimate beneficiaries of having PICs (Persons-in-Charge) dedicated for handling food safety issues in eateries will be the customers.

Apart from the fact that PICs will ensure safe food for them, the new law requires them to address the food safety concerns of the customers.

Restaurant-goers wanting to make a complaint or a suggestion about the hygiene or safety aspect of the food, outlet or its staff can directly approach the PICs present there. Catching hold of the PICs may not be a problem. Once an eatery’s nominated staff gets the PIC certification, he/she is expected to be present throughout the working hours. They will even have ID cards or certificates to make themselves easily identifiable.

“Customers who have any food allergies can also check with the PIC about the ingredients of their menu. It will be especially useful if you have any allergy to food or if you wish to avoid foods with certain ingredients,” said Bobby Krishna, Senior Food Studies and Surveys Officer with the Food Control Department of the Dubai Municipality.

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