WHETHER it's rat droppings in the store room, cockroaches on the shelves or mould on the meat, it happens every year in Ireland and it's never pleasant.
Since 2004, almost 250 food safety orders were been handed down to the proprietors of various establishments, with results ranging from the improvement of conditions to a closed sign on the front door.
The system – whereby 1,300 food control officials police the country in defence of the consumers' right to hygienic food – is transparent, and those who fall foul of the country's high standards are routinely identified. But the devil is in the detail and, often, in the delicacies.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has shut down more than 160 premises over the past five years, a figure that incorporates everything from restaurants to butchers, take-aways to pubs.
That's not to mention the dozens of improvement orders and prohibition orders, which require that work be done or that restrictions be placed on the use of food.
Since 2004, the biggest offenders have been Dublin-based establishments, with 105 food safety orders being given, while the numbers for Cork, Wexford, Donegal and Offaly are in the early double-digits.
The most likely offenders are restaurants and canteens, with 69 food safety orders levelled over the five-year period, while take-aways received 37 orders and meat-handling establishments (butchers and processors) were hit with 32.
But it is the stories behind the statistics that are truly telling. Rodent excrement is a common problem. Last May, a restaurant in Co Kildare was temporarily shut down when a live rodent was seen "in the middle of the dining area" and rat droppings were spotted in the front bar area.
In July, a Dublin supermarket was closed until the problems were addressed after a very apparent cockroach infestation.
"Large numbers of live and dead cockroaches were noted on the shelves of the shop directly underneath foodstuff such as dried fish and vegetables," an official inspection report, obtained by the Sunday Tribune, said.
More cockroaches were found in the food packing area, between the freezers and in the staff toilet.
"The cockroaches were at various stages of their life-cycle. Many were seen with egg cases attached to their bodies."
However, the hygiene problems that are uncovered by the FSAI are in a minority of establishments, as there are 45,000 food premises in Ireland, including almost 10,000 retailers.
According to Bernard Hegarty, a contracts manager with the FSAI, "there is a huge amount of work done to protect public health".
"The establishments that feature in enforcement orders of various kinds are the worst ones by definition; the vast majority are much better than that," he said.
"Obviously, these are people whose commitments to food safety are not as good as they should be. They haven't trained their staff or maintained their premises. These are the underlying causes, if you like. People sometimes expand and get busier and can be a victim of their success. They can do a lot more business than they can safely accommodate."
In most inspections, officers arrive unannounced with full powers of access. What they find ranges from normal standards to the infested, filthy and utterly unacceptable.
The FSAI is not just in the business of enforcement, however. It also goes to great lengths to inform and educate. But the overriding message for food-related businesses in Ireland will always be one of self-enforcement, of a common respect for the business and for the consumers who support it.
"In a sense, because inspections are so visible, these finds can be shocking and can give a misleading picture," said Hergarty. "The law obviously requires much higher standards and puts the onus on the industry itself."
Comments are moderated by our editors, so there may be a delay between submission and publication of your comment. Offensive or abusive comments will not be published. Please note that your IP address (18.104.22.168) will be logged to prevent abuse of this feature. In submitting a comment to the site, you agree to be bound by our Terms and Conditions
Subscribe to The Sunday Tribune’s RSS feeds. Learn more.