With little more than a month to go before new age discrimination regulations come into effect, time is running out for employers in the food and drink industry to be swotting up on their 3Rs: recruitment, retirement and redundancy.

The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006, which come into force on 1 October, will prohibit direct and indirect age discrimination, harassment and victimisation on grounds of age - affecting employment practices across the workforce,

With 40% of that workforce expected to be 45 or older by 2010, this is great news for older job candidates, of course. Oliver Watson, regional managing director of recruitment consultant Michael Page Sales, says: "It's the most positive development in employment law for 20 years.

"The ridiculous situation that has faced some experienced job seekers has no commercial logic. That only younger applicants bring the dynamism to compete in today's world is fundamentally flawed thinking."

The regulations should also encourage food and drink employers to plug the many skills gaps in their ranks, says Ian Buchanan, director of recruitment consultancy Illingworth. "There is a real talent shortage at junior and middle management level within food and drink businesses. Employers will need to review their recruitment strategies and embrace candidates within a broader age profile," he says.

However, the new age discrimination regulations also present a legal minefield for employers that could cost them dearly.

Compensation payouts on the grounds of sex, race or disability discrimination have already reached record levels. More than £6m in compensation was paid out by employers during 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available.

That's an increase of 44% on the previous year, with an average tribunal payout of £16,276. Unlike claims for unfair dismissal, which employees can make after one year in a job, there is no limit for compensation for discrimination.

The new age discrimination regulations are likely to fuel this trend. Peter Burgess, of recruitment consultancy RHR, says: "While we know there will still be employers discriminating, there will also be a surge in people claiming discrimination whether it is right or not. It will be a good time to be an employment lawyer."

In the past decade more than 170 laws have been passed relating to employment but, unfortunately for employers who unintentionally break the law, ignorance is no defence.

The new law gives employees rights even before you have given them a job. The Act will make it unlawful to discriminate on age when determining who should be offered a position - and that will mean paying more attention to issues such as wording and images in recruitment ads, selection criteria and interview questions.

For example, asking an interviewee whether they are married or have children could lay businesses open to charges of discrimination and employers will not be able to advertise for 'young, dynamic' workers.

"Many disenfranchised older candidates will be more challenging regarding their credentials for roles which have traditionally demanded younger talent," reckons Buchanan.

Similarly, ads seeking experienced staff cannot be used as a means of attracting specific candidates when it could be argued that a young person with only one year of work experience but with the right qualifications could do the job just as well.

"Employers and recruitment consultancies will have to become more thorough with their candidate feedback," says Rob Seery, of recruitment consultancy Nigel Wright, which holds seminars explaining the impact of the legislation.

Burgess agrees. "They will have to start monitoring age and check their line managers and HR people are not discriminating. I hope we won't get into using quotas, but employers should keep records on why people were turned down for jobs."

Conciliation ser­vice Acas says employers should remove age or date of birth requests from application forms. This isn't a legal requirement, but would remove an easy trigger for a discrimination claim and provide a defence in a possible tribunal hearing.

Employers will have to ensure requirements on job ads are justified - referring to physical characteristics is acceptable only if the job requires it.

It will also be unlawful to offer inferior terms to an employee because of their age. Pay and holiday rewards for length of service will still be allowed, but evidence of the benefit to the organisation would be required if challenged by an employee.

Retirement is no longer straightforward either. Employers will have to justify keeping retirement age below 65 or else raise it.

They will also have to inform employees in writing at least six months in advance of their retirement date, and consider requests to continue working beyond this. However, companies can stop providing life assurance cover to staff who opt to work beyond 65.

Redundancy is yet another area where employers will need to take greater care. Aside from the implications for redundancy payments, the regulations will affect how employees are selected for redundancy.

A 'last in, first out' policy may fall foul of the law if there are differences in ages between short and long-serving employees.

Younger staff could bring discrimination claims if, for example, their boss disciplines them for poor performance yet turns a blind eye to a similar performance by an employee nearing retirement.

Employers will also have to discourage 'ageist' language or jokes as they could lead to harassment claims.

Views differ on how the new regulations will shape employment practices within the food and drinks sector. RHR's Burgess is cautious: "What should be borne in mind is that we have had equal pay legislation since 1970 and yet even now women on average receive 15% less than men."n