The middle figure shows the country of origin for non-conformity, Italy is fourth in Europe.
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The bottom figure shows the three main products’ categories involved in alerts: feed, fish products, and produce.
When the 93/43 EU directive first introduced HACCP principles, adapted by Italy in 1997, in food enterprises to ensure food safety, most of the operators were completely unprepared if not resistant to switch to the new system. Until then, they were only familiar with official controls, not carrying out autonomous controls.
The gaps between developing and implementing GMPs and SSOPs served as a major obstacle for food manufacturers. Companies wasted huge amounts of paper producing “all-purpose” manuals, flowcharts with many needless CCPs, and checklists compiled without previous risk analysis—all simply to appease the authorities. Obviously, the application of HACCP in this way not only diverges from the “golden principles,” but also proves itself costly and utterly useless. An American speaker at an international conference some years ago went even further, stating that the acronym HACCP had probably been interpreted in Italy as “Have A Cup of Coffee and Pray.” Unfortunately, this may be true for small enterprises. However, Italian artisanal producers have achieved great skills in producing raw, ready-to-eat, safe food products throughout the centuries. The main problem might not be food safety itself, but the reluctance to change the approach to it. Again as far as small-medium enterprises SME concerns, focusing on GMPs and SSOPs makes more sense. Differences in eating habits and food culture also have to be considered in order to understand the complexity of a comparison with a country like the U.S., especially in weighing food safety versus risk acceptance related to food emotion.
In many larger companies, HACCP had already been implemented successfully due to the presence of competent staff and the need to compete on the international market with industrial standards. However, a proper “culture of recalls,” at least as developed in the U.S., is not present in Italy. In the case of non-conformities where corrective action is needed, withdrawals from the market are far more common than proper recalls, even in cases where this decision appears questionable.
The pressure of globalization has also increased the incentive for enterprises to earn quality certifications. In fact, the number of quality certified companies (i.e. BRC and ISO certified) has increased over the last few years. The decision to do so depends greatly on the targeted customer or market and its requirements. Certification represents an advantage for the control authorities as well because it gives a systematical professional approach to preventing, managing, and responding to problems and emergencies arising on food safety issues within the certified company subject to inspection. According to personal experience as a control authority, this is best appreciated during audits performed at these certified establishments.
Continuing education represents another pillar on which to improve food safety and is now compulsory for food handlers, according to European legislation.
Recently, a survey was conducted of food handlers in 100 restaurants to determine food safety knowledge gaps among restaurant food handlers in Bolzano, Italy. The overall knowledge score was 65 percent. Food handlers most frequently gave incorrect answers to questions concerning temperatures for cooking and holding foods, beef, cross-contamination, and hygiene practices.
The study, published in Food Protection Trends in March 2014, followed the release of two other studies carried out in Chicago and in Switzerland, incidentally, where food handlers received better scores. It demonstrates the need for ongoing education of restaurant food handlers regarding proper behaviors when handling of high-risk foods.
In conclusion, continuing education to increase competences in food handlers combined with a more evidence- and risk-based coordinated system of controls is the best way to achieve efficiency and safety in the Italian food industry.