Raw ham, parmesan, mozzarella, pasta, pizza, lasagna, tiramisu—Italian food such as these are well known and appreciated around the world. In fact, food export in Italy represents one of the few business branches less affected by economic crisis that otherwise strangling the country at the moment; export increased 5.8 percent in 2013.
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The Italian food production chain is characterized by the comparatively small size of the enterprises. Italian slaughterhouses, for instance, are roughly one quarter the capacity of those in France, and even smaller than those in the U.S. Small food businesses with fewer than nine employees comprise 90 percent of the 65,000 existing food enterprises in Italy.
In Italy, food safety issues are adjudicated almost exclusively by regulations and directives of the European Union (EU). Regulations directly apply to all member states, whereas directives have to be transformed into national legislation by each of the member states before being considered a requirement, allowing for minor changes in the final text. Therefore, the member states sometimes differ in practical application.
Nationwide, the implementation of food safety rules are in the hands of both the central government’s Ministry of Health and the 20 Italian regions’ legislative/administrative bodies. Although Italy is not a federal state, regions retain major organizational issues, with evident differences between regions in final application of the rules—adding to the complexity of the whole picture.
According to EU regulations 852.853.854.882 (2004), food business operators are responsible for ensuring food safety. The official controls ensuring compliance with the regulations along the food chain are carried out at local level by the health departments, and by their veterinary services on any food of animal origin. Health departments are part of public agencies called “aziende sanitarie,” which administer the national health care system’s services at the local level. It is interesting to note that the veterinary services, employing 6,500 veterinary officers nationwide, are allocated within the health care system under the “umbrella” of the Ministry of Health and not of Agriculture, as in several other countries.
The EU community, including Italy, is a free trade market between all member states. Therefore, food and other goods are only inspected at specially designed checkpoints when they are first introduced into the community, i.e. imported from countries outside the EU. In case of non-compliance, the entry into the community is refused and a “border rejection notification” is issued. Italy is the only exception within the EU that has another authority called UVAC (Veterinary Office for EU Affairs), which administer random controls on food introduced to Italy from other member states through the health departments’ veterinary services. UVAC offices, located in each region, depend directly on the Ministry of Health.
Other authorities (carabinieri NAS, polizia annonaria, guardie forestali, guardia di finanza, etc.) perform hygiene or similar checks. European, national, and regional rules apply, leading to overlaps in legislation and administration. A number of different authorities often inspect establishments for the same purpose without coordinating with one another. This sometimes creates confusion and frustration among food business operators who, not surprisingly, ask for less bureaucracy and more efficiency. Excessive bureaucracy is one of the reasons many food businesses have closed down in recent years, scaring young entrepreneurs and preventing them from creating new ventures.
In addition, the economic crisis has led to crime organizations acquiring food companies in financial troubles. Unfortunately, Italy has become known worldwide for its corrupt business deals, triggering the necessity of reforms.
The three figures at right show the non-conformities that led to the activation of the EU’s RASFF (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) in 2013. The top figure shows the number of alerts “by notifying country.” Italy is at the top of this list with 534 alerts activated out of 3,137 in the EU during 2013.
The middle figure shows the country of origin for non-conformity, Italy is fourth in Europe.
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.
Carli works at the Veterinary Service in Bolzano, Italy. Reach him at AGOSTINO.CARLI@sabes.it.