Food safety warning as sampling rates fall again

The UK could be on the brink of a “devastating” food safety scandal if local authority testing rates continue to fall, according to a leading food fraud expert.

In a comment for New Food, Professor Chris Elliott, who led the government’s inquiry into the horsemeat scandal, noted the “immense work and resources” that large companies have put into ensuring food integrity, but raised concerns that small processors, retailers and food catering outlets have no such systems in place.

“I can envisage local authorities’ ability to police multiple food producers and outlets further reducing to the point at which a major tilting point in food safety will occur, and possibly with devastating effects,” he wrote. “Those individuals that rely heavily on the small stores and purchase larger amounts of fast food than the norm [and who also tend to be the worst off in our society] are clearly at much higher risk of being cheated.”

And he isn’t the only expert to express concerns about the UK’s food supply system. Last month, Stefano Mariani, professor of conservation genetics at the University of Salford, told the BBC that rogue restaurants think they can get away with fish fraud – for example, passing off catfish as cod – because there is so little testing of seafood.

"In general there's very little testing for authenticity and traceability – at county level they may decide other tests, for instance testing for potentially harmful bacteria, is more important," he said.

In 2017, 91 fish samples were submitted to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, compared to 665 meat samples.

Professor Elliott highlighted the troubling headlines in September that followed a BBC Freedom of Information request made to the FSA, which revealed that out of those 665 samples, 145 were partly or wholly made up of unspecified meat.

The results included samples taken from restaurants, supermarkets, and food processing and manufacturing facilities. However, nearly all the issues occurred in small retailers and food catering outlets.

“When the FSA was pressed on how it was tackling these points of concern, it simply kicked it back to local authorities, declaring it was their responsibility to take the necessary action,” Professor Elliott noted.

Data published by the FSA later in September showed a “continuing reduction in sampling activity”, with 45,210 official food samples reported in 2017/18, a fall of 10%. “We are identifying and monitoring local authorities which are having difficulties with planning and delivery of the food law enforcement services through a new balanced scorecard approach,” said Nina Purcell, director of regulatory delivery at the FSA.

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