Enforcement of food safety rules could be at risk due to a shortage of qualified environmental health practitioners (EHPs).
Over half (56%) of local authorities reported they had vacancies in their environmental health teams that were left unfilled for six months or more, according to a new workforce survey carried out by the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health (CIEH).
As a result, nearly a third (31%) of those surveyed said, in their opinion, the delivery of some statutory environmental health duties was at risk due to resourcing issues.
EHPs play a key role in ensuring the safety and integrity of food sold to consumers in both retail and out of home settings. They are responsible for ensuring food premises meet food safety and hygiene laws as well as the award of food hygiene ratings. They are also increasingly having to police the growing volume of food produced in domestic settings for sale via social media platforms.
At 33%, food hygiene and safety has the highest proportion of specialist EHPs with a further 19% working in environmental protection and 4% in food standards.
CIEH estimates there are between 3,240 and 3,360 full time equivalent (FTE) fully qualified EHPs working for local authorities in England to deliver environmental health services. The vast majority (87%) of local authorities rely on additional agency staff because of shortages in resources or delays in recruitment.
Almost a third (31%) of local authorities reported that some environmental health services have been stopped during the past six years compared with 45% that were unchanged.
In 2019/20, 52% of local authorities did not have a single apprentice or trainee EHP, raising concerns about the ability to meet future demand.
In a foreword to the report, CIEH chief executive Phil James wrote that given the relatively high numbers of unfilled posts and use of agency workers to fill gaps in the service, training future recruits should be a key priority to ensure a steady supply of skilled, qualified and experienced EHPs in the future.
James also called for central government funding to support the next generation of EHPs in order to place the profession on a sustainable footing.
Regarding food specifically, CIEH called for the Food Standards Agency to continue to fund training for EHPs engaged in food inspections as well as training specifically to deal with the impact of Brexit on the food industry and novel foods.