Community & Environment

Where’s a good place to eat

When people ask Sue Reynolds if a Hamilton eatery is good, she strives to be as diplomatic as possible.

Sue is the Council’s Food Safety and Public Health Team Leader – a role which means on average she’s seen inside more commercial kitchens and walk-in fridges than most people will in their entire life.

The role, part of the City Safe Unit, means Sue and her team of four Food Safety Officers are directly responsible for the audits and compliance of food businesses all around the city – from tiny hole-in-the-wall take-out spots to large commercial kitchens.  The law focusses responsibility on the food premises operator, with the Council acting as the authority ensuring agreed food control plans tailored to their business are followed correctly.

So, unsurprisingly, people frequently ask her if their preferred eatery is safe and sound.

“Often, it’s one of their favourites, and they want to know what it’s like…or they’re going to eat there that night,” she explains. “On occasions, answering can be quite tricky.”

Sue and her team go behind the scenes inside Hamilton’s eateries, auditing the paperwork, and checking the plan matches real life. Using a combination of food science and observational skills, hygiene standards are assessed, critical food temperatures examined, and key areas are inspected for dirt and grime, vermin and pests – unhygienic conditions.  The role is fundamental to the protection of the community and is a core part of the compliance and regulatory role played by the Council’s City Growth group. Ultimately, it’s about ensuring food business operators are taking appropriate steps to prepare and serve safe food from hygienic kitchens, and mitigating risks such as food poisoning.

Sue has been in the food industry for more than 20 years. She trained originally in England as an Environmental Health Officer.   In amongst that training, she has been a poultry and red meat inspector and went on to manage issues in the 2001 United Kingdom’s foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.  The decision to move to New Zealand was, in large part, motivated by a previous visit as a backpacker.  In New Zealand, she polished up on her food science knowledge working as a food scientist at the Crown Research Institute, ESR, and then went on to work in disaster zones of Christchurch, overseeing the removal of putrid food from city’s eateries abandoned following the February 2011 earthquake.

Her path to becoming an Environmental Health Officer stemmed from a computer-based career tool she used at high school, which – after she’d put in her interests and academic achievements – guided her into her career.

“I didn’t even really know what an Environmental Health Officer was,” she says, recalling initial work experience at Chester City Council where she “got hooked and had a wonderful time”.

Sue pulling her small wheeled briefcase is a familiar sight to anyone who works in the central city – the downtown eateries, pubs and bars are her “beat”, while her team works throughout the suburbs. The suitcase includes “plenty of protective rubber gloves”, assorted sample bags, thermometers, labelling, notices for closures and seizures, light meter and pH meters – and the familiar white laboratory coat.

Sue’s been exposed to some disgusting things behind the scenes at eateries: fly maggots writhing in the decomposing bodies of dead mice on kitchen floors, rancid food which hasn’t been properly kept, raw sewage bubbling at the back door of a restaurant and being traipsed into the kitchen by the eatery’s staff.  Unsurprisingly, Sue used her powers under the Food Act to immediately shut these places down.

“Now nothing will shock me, because I’ve seen an awful lot of really grim stuff in kitchens,” she says. “And occasionally I can leave a food premises and feel like wiping my feet before stepping outside onto the footpath, it’s been so bad.”

Hence, Sue’s preferred style of footwear is knee-high leather boots.

“This is the stuff people focus on because they see it on reality TV shows, such as Hell’s kitchen and The Life of Grime – us closing places down,” she says.

Sue says shutting an eatery on public health grounds is not as common as people may think. She issues a verbal instruction for the eatery to close, followed by the paperwork. She can allow an eatery to reopen once it’s cleaned up to her satisfaction – but some never reopen.

Some businesses ordered to close can be rapidly cleaned up by proprietors, with Sue returning the next day to inspect: “It can be like a massive new reveal – the clean-up can be extremely quick, I can walk back in the next day and it feels like I should be cutting a ribbon, because the whole place has been cleaned, bleached and repainted.”

Sue files photographic records of the more concerning issues in the kitchens she audits– and in that aspect, technology has made her job easier. When she started her career she had to use conventional analogue cameras with film, while now it’s a few quick snaps on her cellphone.

“One of the best perks of my job is knowing exactly where to eat!”

  • Trained Food Safety Officers are scarce, and Sue says there is constant demand for people with relevant qualifications and skills to take up positions. Qualifications to become an Environmental Health Officer can be obtained from Massey University and Auckland University of Technology.
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