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Hebridean Food: Environmental Health Interview

Alasdair MacEachen


Alasdair MacEachen is an Environmental Health Officer in Benbecula. He describes the implications of his job in terms of both enforcement and education, in particular relation to food handling and production.


My name’s Alasdair MacEachen. I’m an Environmental Health Officer with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (the Western Isles Council). I’ve now been in this role for about, just a little over thirty years, and I’m now part of the management of the department as Assistant Director looking after the environmental health function, as it were, throughout Uist and Barra.


It’s a very wide-ranging role, taking in – it’s a regulatory service, I suppose, you could, you know broadly – in that we’re an enforcing authority, as you would say. On the other hand, I like to think that it’s more of a – more educating than enforcing, to be honest, as far as regulatory requirements are concerned. And it is wide-ranging. The food side of things takes up a considerable amount of time, but then at the same time we have many other environmental legislation to enforce, if you like. And that can take in anything from health and safety requirements, workplace health and safety, and we’re involved in public cleansing, refuse disposal, refuse collection. We also administer housing grants, which is another side of public health, if you like, repairs and improvements to substandard houses.


As I said, food safety and food hygiene takes up a lot of our time – particularly I would think in the last ten years or so. I suppose that it was with the Central Scotland E. Coli outbreak and the Pennington Enquiry when our own government put more funding into food safety and food hygiene that that side of the work got a far higher profile. Um, so now we find ourselves having to risk assess every food business, whether it’s somebody selling teas and cakes, or somebody processing meat or fish or shellfish, or whatever the case may be. And, depending on the outcome of these risk assessments on the food business, that determines how often we actually have to inspect individual premises.


In addition to that, of course, as I said, that is the enforcement side of it, if you like, on the education side of things we like to be able to advise businesses of the requirements. Otherwise, it’s very difficult at times for businesses that are very busy doing their day to day work to actually get the time to research, and that’s provided they know where to research. So, if we keep on top of the regulations that come all the way from Europe through our own government and on to local government, then I feel that, you know, we can help the local businesses a great deal in that sort of advisory role, if you like.


Well, I hope that businesses will appreciate that they can come to ourselves. As I say, they are duty bound, as I said, to comply with the regulations that are in force for their own particular type of business. Again the legislation can be broken down to deal with various types of food business. And I think that most businesses would know that they could come to us and ask for advice about specific regulations. And at the end of the day that service is available to them at no cost. The alternative might be to either do their own research, using their own employees, or employ consultants or whatever. They can do that if they wish. On the other hand, we are here, um, in a local setting, basically to give them that advice.


The other side of the coin, I think, is from the consumer point of view. This is where the Food Standards Agency in particular come from, in that they are there, as it were, to basically look at food production, as they say, from plough to plate, or farm to fork, or all of these kind of terminology that they use now. And they are looking at it from the consumer point of view, so that when you do actually go and buy and eat food, that you are assured, basically, that there will be no harm to your health.


So that’s basically from the producer point of view and from the consumer point of view, and hopefully, all comes together somewhere in the middle to keep everybody happy.

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