Swingeing funding cuts to agencies responsible for ensuring food is safe to eat and environmental laws are obeyed threaten to undermine decades of progress in consumer protection, according to a new report.
The Unchecked UK campaign group claims key regulatory agencies are “unable to enforce the rules” they are responsible for upholding and are therefore “no longer fit for purpose”. As a result, “businesses are going unchecked, important rules are going unheeded, harms are going unseen, and breaches of the law are going unpunished”.
Across the range of regulatory areas covered by their investigation Unchecked UK found average budgets have fallen by 41% in real terms over the last decade, and staff numbers by well over a third.
The report found that enforcement agencies such as the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Food Standards Agency have seen their budgets cut by over half from 2009-2019.
Total net spend by local authorities on food safety in England fell by 38% during the period. Total local food law enforcement staff in England, Wales and NI fell by the same figure while local authority trading standards staff numbers fell by 56%.
Cuts to spending and staff have had a knock-on effect on enforcement activity. Environment Agency packaging compliance visits of reprocessers and exporters in England are down by 72% over the ten-year period.
Local authority prosecutions of food businesses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland fell by 23%, while food product sampling and testing by local authorities was down by 59%. Spending on waste collection by English local authorities reduced by 35%.
The report found that over the past 30 to 40 years there have been encouraging improvements in food safety and standards in the UK with the majority of UK food businesses now compliant with hygiene requirements and levels of major food-borne illnesses broadly stable since 2013. The authors, however, said the UK’s enforcement gap now threatens to undermine this progress.
Allergic reactions to food due to undeclared allergenic ingredients are one example of a growing problem with NHS statistics showing that hospital admissions in England for anaphylactic shock caused by adverse food reactions rose by 70% between 2008/09 and 2017/18. This has been accompanied by a steep decline in food allergen sampling.