However way you look at it, anything that involves food safety is going to be a serious undertaking. After all, the principal responsibility of the occupation is tied to safeguarding human lives. In recent years, food safety hazards have made headlines, underscoring the necessity of establishments to place greater emphasis to this side of the business. Today, with the coronavirus threatening the food industry, it’s never been more important to set stronger benchmarks for food safety. And one of the defining personalities that anyone in the business will encounter is a food safety compliance officer (FSCO).

Also known as a hygiene and sanitation manager in hospitality establishments, which is now required based on Memorandum Circular No. 2020-002 from the Department of Tourism, the job of an FSCO is “a co-mingling of food science and behavioral science,” says Glenn Hyde dela Cruz, FSCO, vice president of program development and food inspection services at Food Safety and Hygiene Academy of the Philippines.

“As an FSCO, you are responsible for leading the development and implementation of food safety, hygiene and sanitation program in your food establishment and ensuring compliance with local laws and regulation,” says Dela Cruz,  specifically citing the Food Safety Act of 2013 (RA 10611), the Code on Sanitation of the Philippines (PD 856) and other hygiene and safety standards required by clients (like GMP, HACCP, ISO 22000, FSSC).

Clearly, it’s a position that requires absolute command of safety and sanitation, and Dela Cruz with his years of experience in the industry is one of the captains of the food safety ship in his own right, helping oversee the academy he is part of as well as working with various private and government institutions. Here, Dela Cruz gives a little glimpse of what it’s like to be in his shoes—all intoxicating nuances included.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 600 million people fall ill after eating contaminated food (almost one in 10 people) and 420,000 die every year in the world.

How did you first become interested in food safety?

Curiosity drove me to be an FSCO. I was always inquisitive and interested in food science when I was young. My interest in food safety started when I conducted research in my food microbiology class. We tested foods in a stall inside our university and the result was positive in two microbes: Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella. That was my first real experience in this field.

Fast forward to a few years later, I worked in a food microbiology laboratory in which my primary responsibilities were food testing and inspecting the safety of hotels’ food and beverage. This made me realize that food safety isn’t only about testing food inside the controlled environment of a laboratory but also applying control measures and influencing food handlers to start changing their behaviors during food preparation. This led me to becoming a full-fledged food safety compliance officer in the local and international hospitality industry.

If someone is interested in this line of work, what degrees are available or they should take in university?

Everyone can be involved in this line of work. But to be more specific, a food safety compliance officer is relatively new since the food industry is more familiar with the titles “quality assurance officer” or “hygiene manager.” Until the IRR of the Food Safety Act was released in 2015, all food establishments are now required to designate personnel to oversee the implementation of food safety.

You can still work in this industry or work as an FSCO even if your course is not related to food provided you have undergone certification. In the law, all food establishments or businesses related to food need to designate an FSCO who has passed a prescribed training course recognized by the Department of Agriculture and/or the Department of Health.

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Are there characteristics required if you want to work in this industry?

The main characteristics required to be an FSCO are competency and an in-depth knowledge of food safety, hygiene and sanitation laws and regulations )the main reason why you need to be certified); leadership and interpersonal skills; attention to detail; authority to implement corrective actions; and the ability to train, coach and influence people.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about food safety?

The common misconceptions I’ve heard from people include but are not limited to the following:

  • Some food business operators regard food safety as an additional expense, not realizing that more negative consequences will arise if they don’t have a well implemented and verified food safety program. They will realize the importance if they already have an unfortunate event like food poisoning or food safety-related customer complaints and infections in their business
  • Some food handlers view food safety as additional responsibility, not knowing that this is both their moral and legal responsibility
  • Some business owners and members of the organization look at food safety as the sole responsibility of an FSCO. Which is not, it doesn’t work that way

Some food business operators regard food safety as an additional expense, not realizing that more negative consequences will arise if they don’t have a well implemented and verified food safety program. They will realize the importance if they already have an unfortunate event like food poisoning or food safety-related customer complaints and infections in their business.

Tell us about a typical day in the life of an FSCO.

A typical day of an FSCO include but are not limited to the following:

  • Attending operations meeting with key personnel from different departments and daily chef’s briefing
  • Operational rounds in food and beverage areas (kitchen, service, bars, lounges, receiving and storage areas), sometimes with division heads to check cleanliness and compliance with the procedure
  • Checking emails and following up corrective actions and other updates to top management
  • Interacting with food and beverage staff, suppliers and sometimes with guests in the dining area especially during rounds in service areas
  • Other activities as needed like swabbing of food contact surfaces, assisting inspectors from the government or clients, assisting food sampling of personnel from laboratory and conducting refresher courses or short training sessions

What’s the best thing about working in food safety?

You are helping the community in reducing risks of food poisoning by ensuring that food establishments comply with the laws. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 600 million people fall ill after eating contaminated food (almost one in 10 people) and 420,000 die every year in the world.

As a food safety advocate, working in the industry is rewarding and satisfying. You make people understand how important food safety is to people and to food businesses.

How have the food safety standards evolved in the Philippines?

The Philippines is still working on bridging gaps on food safety regulations and practices. When I started working in the industry in 2008, food safety was still an option for food businesses because we only have the Code on Sanitation of the Philippines for foodservice establishment to follow during that time. Until 2015, it really moved me to know the release of the IRR of the Food Safety Act of 2013.

The good thing about the changes of food safety standards in our country is that we can see that the food business operators are now guided by this act. Since the food safety act was established to require food businesses to have an FSCO, little by little it’s becoming a culture in our country. The consumers now are also becoming aware of the law.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, do you think we’re going to see a difference in how food safety is perceived?

Before the pandemic, food safety guidelines already existed. Our only concern is the commitment of everyone, not just food business operators but also consumers. Now, it serves as a wakeup call to everyone that we should not take it for granted. People during this pandemic are becoming more conscious, that is why we should intensify food safety implementation. We are even seeing people wearing masks and gloves, washing hands frequently and companies communicating a stronger commitment to health and safety on social media.

I want to point out the statement of the founder of FoodSHAP, Dr. Wessam Atif: “I really want us to be careful, as a lifestyle. Not only because of COVID-19. This pandemic would end, like all other pandemics end. You wake up one day and there will no longer be any cases. But we need to change our lifestyle and culture in preparation for the next pandemic.”

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