Founder and Chairman of Highfield Qualifications Richard Sprenger has been a passionate advocate for food safety his entire life. Graduating in 1973 with a degree in Environmental Health, in the 1980s Sprenger’s commitment to his constituents in the UK led him to become the youngest Director of Environmental Health Services of a large metropolis. “That was my official job, but my hobby was food safety,” he says. “Instead of playing golf, I wrote training materials and books about food safety. At the time there was very little practical information or easily accessible material out there. I dedicated thousands of hours to it.”
This hobby led to a more exciting path than most of us might imagine in the world of food safety regulation and enforcement. With little official or professional food training available in the UK at the time, Sprenger set out to change the industry; its standards and practices - alone, if he had to. After the Chartered Institute repeatedly delayed his determined advocacy for effective food safety training, he took matters into his own hands.
“At the time, I had written the first versions of the Food Safety Handbook and Hygiene for Management, and we decided that we were going to publish them ourselves. In 1982 we set up Highfield Publications, which my wife ran. I wrote the materials as a hobby, and she published and sold them. We got into the publishing business because the Institute rejected Hygiene for Management.”
Since then, Highfield Publications has grown into Highfield Qualifications. Hygiene for Management is on its 24th edition, and Highfield Qualifications is an award-winning global leader in compliance, work-based learning and apprenticeship qualifications. Most recently, Richard collaborated with Georgie Mainey of the Maritime Food Authority (MFA) on the development of the new Manager in Charge for Luxury Yachts Program. Launched in April 2020, the MFA was established to bring food safety standards on board superyachts in line with best practice ashore. Preparations long preceded COVID-19 but, as the superyacht industry adapts to a new kind of normal, improvements in food safety and infection control could be one of the most critical steps forward, says Sprenger.
Any significant change to industry practice will inevitably face some resistance. Why do you think the Manager in Charge for Luxury Yachts Program is what the yachting industry needs right now?
At no other time in the history of cruising has it been so important to rebuild the confidence of the public when it comes to food safety and infection prevention. As the world slowly starts to reopen amidst COVID 19, I genuinely believe in the importance of food safety in combating the pandemic and ensuring we can safely return to travelling and cruising the world. For it to work, the regulations and requirements must be relevant, cost-effective, implemented with minimal difficulty, and the rules able to be applied practically. This is precisely what the Manager in Charge for Luxury Yachts Program delivers.
Highfield Qualifications has worked with the MFA to develop the Manager in Charge for Luxury Yachts Program. What do you each bring to the table?
We’ve taken a program that works on dry land and, using Georgie’s first-hand experience and vision, applied it to the superyacht industry. Over all my years in the field, I have seen countless food safety programs fail over time because they target the wrong priorities, are not directly relevant, are too complex or expensive and require too much change. My background is extensive and practical: I’ve spent my whole career working in the field with enforcement officers, trainers, hygiene managers and chefs to raise standards. Training is essential but qualifications provide knowledge and should be the start of the journey to competency, not just end with a certificate on the wall.
The MFA’s Manager in Charge for Luxury Yachts Program is designed specifically for food safety at sea and focuses on commitment and competency. It’s different from existing programs and is designed to ensure customer confidence, and that’s why I am so excited about it.
How does the program ensure consistent implementation of high standards of food safety on board?
Accountability is key when maintaining the exceedingly high safety and service standards on board a superyacht. With this program, the responsibility lies with the people in charge of the food on the yacht. The current system puts the responsibility on the external auditor to tell the crew what is wrong. They then give them a list of things to change, and the crew complete the list. Too many management programs see little being done until the enforcement officer comes round and provides a list of contraventions. As the owner of a yacht, I would find that system unsatisfactory. Our program says, no. When the auditor or inspector comes round, the yacht’s manager in charge should be able to show that any issues that have occurred over the year were identified and corrected immediately. Why should there be problems which are left unchecked for months at a time before the auditor comes? This is what exposes clients to health risks.
Will the elected manager in charge need to redo qualifications as part of the program?
We are not replacing what is already on the yachts: we are building on it and improving it. One of the most important things we did when creating this program was to look at what people are already doing - and there are a lot of good things. Our job, along with Georgie and the MFA team, is to keep the good things and get rid of bad practice and things that don’t work. It’s a very cost-effective program. We don’t ask people to sit specific qualifications annually. But, the implementation of what they have learned has to be demonstrated through both the external and internal audits.
In addition to monthly internal audits and an annual external audit by the MFA, what else is required to maintain the certificate?
Information and knowledge are changing all the time. Although we don’t ask people to do qualifications annually, we do ask that they keep themselves up to date with continued professional development (CPD) points. The program requires the manager in charge to complete 24 hours of CPD every year - they are given a list of things they can do to gain those points throughout the year. Their certificate will be renewed annually, but if they haven’t completed the CPD and they haven’t done monthly audits that have been verified as acceptable, they won’t get the renewal certificate for the yacht.
You mentioned the importance of food safety in the wake of the global pandemic. Can you expand on that?
When the program is implemented correctly, this combination of accountability and comprehensive knowledge and competency will protect you from COVID 19 as well as a host of other potential pathogens. Those yachts that use it are demonstrating to their guests that they are committed to safeguarding their health. I have 50 years of experience in food safety, from the private sector to the top levels of government. I am confident that this is the best program out there to ensure that we offer the maximum protection possible, not only for yacht owners and guests, but for crew. It should be worn like a badge of honour: you are saying you care about the safety of the people on board.
What are the next steps in establishing the authority of the MFA and the Manager in Charge for Luxury Yachts Program?
People are becoming more and more aware of the importance of food safety and hygiene. If we get the leaders of the superyacht industry to engage, we will slowly build the recognition that the program needs. The public will see that and come to trust it. When asked questions about COVID 19 or norovirus, there will be an answer - they can even ask to speak to the manager in charge in the run-up to a charter. But it’s no secret that it’s going to be a challenge to get to that stage. There are lots of certificates and qualifications, but at the moment there is nothing like this program. It will take time for awareness to grow, but the program and philosophy behind it are excellent. We need to get the public and the industry to recognise that.