What do you do and where do you come from?

I’m Sarah O’Reilly, from Derby and I’m a Senior Environmental Health Officer working within the Food and Safety Team. Myself and my team primarily work with food businesses in the city, advising and supporting them to have good food hygiene, but when this doesn’t work we’ll take enforcement action and sometimes prosecute to help keep Derby consumers safe. Other parts of my job include inspecting commercial businesses for health and safety, investigating complaints about premises, outbreaks of food poisoning, infectious disease or pests, reviewing and commenting on planning applications and taking food samples for laboratory testing.

The team also investigate accidents at work, advise community groups and give seminars.  We have to keep a lot of records and write reports on a daily basis, and we can also give evidence in court.  I am usually out of the office at some point most days doing different things and I work with a wide range of people and organisations including the Police, Fire Service, the Food standards Agency, HSE, Public Health England and other teams within the Council.

How did you end up in your current role?  What inspired you to get involved in Food Safety?

It was during a Home Economics lesson at school when an Environmental Health Officer came to talk to us about her job. She brought along a stuffed rat and an array of equipment (such as a thermometer, surface swabs, electric socket tester, noise level meter, damp meter, drainage rods) and we talked about the variety of work and she gave examples of funny, interesting and gory stories. I think this inspired me and planted a seed at the back of my mind.

However, at the time I was adamant on becoming a teacher, so off I went to start my teacher training journey.  As much as I loved the teaching side of the job I began to wonder whether this was the career path for me.  Did I really want to spend my life in a school setting? I started to think that I needed to gain some other life skills (little did I know at the time the experiences I would encounter) that would still involve some element of teaching, thinking that I could always get back into teaching with other transferable skills gained at some point if I wanted to.

With that in mind and my enjoyment of food safety and nutrition at school, after my first year I changed degree and graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Food, Nutrition and Consumer Protection. I then spent a week (back in 1998) with Derby City’s Environmental Health Team and absolutely loved the variety of work it had to offer and knew this was the career for me. I then enrolled on an MSc in Environmental Health at the University of Birmingham.  I graduated in 2002 and began a job within the Food and Safety Team of Derby City Council.

What do you enjoy about the job and what is the most rewarding part of your job?

I appreciate the fact that I’m not stuck behind a desk all day and that I meet a variety of people from all walks of life.  I love that I get to make a difference and help protect people’s health.  I enjoy the variety of work and that I am continually learning and being challenged.  Every day can be different in this job as you can never be quite sure what’s going to come across your desk.

The job is satisfying, however, some of the best bits of the job come from physically seeing improvements and transformation in businesses, and the sense of achievement this brings, not only for us but also for members of the public that may visit or eat at a premise and the employees who work there.

Whilst I always do my best to work with premises to help them improve by offering advice and guidance, there are a few occasions where as a last resort we may have to prosecute operators to ensure the public are kept safe. Taking action to prosecute operators raises the profile to other food businesses that Derby City Council requires adequate food safety standards to be implemented and maintained in all food businesses across the city and that appropriate action will be taken for businesses that put public health at risk.

What kind of challenges do you encounter on a daily basis in your role?

With such a wide remit particularly in the Health and Safety field it can be difficult to retain the knowledge and keep up to speed with changing regulations, and practice guidance.  In the last fortnight in health and safety alone I’ve gone from dealing with asbestos and legionella, to chemical safety issues, work at height issues and hand arm vibration issues. It can be challenging juggling different balls and wearing different hats all the time, you never stop learning.

I work outside the usual office hours with other members of the team to ensure public safety and over the years I have also faced situations where I’ve had to down tools to deal with potential imminent risks to health or risks of serious personal injury.

There are occasionally language problems in some of our premises, particularly the food businesses.  It makes for a challenging inspection when you have to do it with an interpreter present.

Occasionally in the 15 years of working as an Environmental Health Officer I have encountered unpleasant situations, but I have to say that this has probably been only a handful over the years. I am fortunate to work with great colleagues who always support me.

How can the public support or get involved with Food Safety in the city?

The public should look before they book!  Check out the food hygiene ratings of food establishments on the Food Standards Agency website before eating out or ordering a take away. The public should aim to eat in establishments with a food hygiene rating of 3 and above.

Take Food Safety to heart by following these simple points:

  • Take chilled food straight home after purchase, if you can’t, use an insulated bag.
  • Separate raw foods and ready-to-eat foods in your shopping bags.
  • Wrap/ cover all raw or uncooked foods and ensure they are stored separately or below ready to eat foods, so that they can’t touch or drip on and contaminate them.
  • Check your refrigerator operates at between 0-5oC and follow storage instructions given on food packages.
  • Respect use-by dates and follow the manufacturer’s instructions on products regarding shelf life once you have opened them.
  • Frequent and thorough hand washing is paramount to food safety.  Ensure you wash your hands with soap and hot water. Use a separate towel to dry hands, not the tea towel
  • Boil wash or change kitchen cloths or sponges regularly.
  • Use separate utensils and chopping boards for preparing raw foods and meat.
  • Keep pets away from food, equipment and work surfaces.
  • Clean work surfaces before you start to prepare food.
  • Do not wash raw meat and chicken.  Thorough cooking will kill the bacteria.  Washing merely spreads the bacteria around the kitchen and increases the likelihood of cross contamination.
  • Do not make recipes that include eggs which won’t be thoroughly cooked, such as mayonnaise and chocolate mousse.
  • Cook food thoroughly to kill harmful bacteria, particularly raw meat and raw meat products.
  • Thaw frozen food thoroughly before cooking/re-heating.  It is best to defrost food in the fridge or by microwaving.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly
  • Cooked food should only be reheated once until piping hot.