Food safety and standards under “strain” as checks are missed

Some local authorities are failing to meet their legal responsibilities to ensure food businesses comply with food laws, according to a report by the National Audit Office.

The proportion of hygiene checks of businesses (including detecting unsafe food) that were “due” and successfully carried out increased between 2012-13 and 2017-18, from 82% to 86%.

However, only 37% of the food standards checks due (which ensure food is what it says it is) actually took place in 2017-18.

The Chartered Institute of Environment Health (CIEH) said the report makes the case for halting the erosion of public protection, and in particular the environmental health workforce in local government.

“On the one hand [the Food Standards Agency] is recommending to government full ingredients labelling for food prepacked for direct sale [which was approved by the government this week] but [on the other it’s] not providing sufficient funding at a local level to carry out checks that food is actually what it says it is on the label,” said CIEH director for Wales Kate Thompson.

She also called for the FSA to reinstate its support to local authorities for food sampling.
The NAO said most food businesses are meeting hygiene requirements, with levels of major food-borne illnesses broadly stable. Indeed, between 2013-14 and 2017-18, food businesses that were at least “broadly compliant” with food hygiene requirements in England increased from 87% in 2013-14 to 90% in 2017-18. Laboratory confirmed human cases of key food-borne diseases are currently below levels that would trigger an FSA investigation.

However, 26,860 food businesses in England had not yet been assessed for food hygiene risks in 2017-18. Some local authorities were struggling with significant backlogs due to staffing shortfalls and high turnover of food businesses.

The cost of delivering food controls in England in 2016-17 was an estimated £164m, with 73% of costs being met by local authorities and port health authorities. Spending on food hygiene by local authorities fell by an estimated 19% between 2012-13 and 2017-18 because of funding pressures. Food hygiene staff numbers also declined by an estimated 13% relative to the number of food businesses in operation over this period, while food standards staff reduced by 45%.

“The regulatory system is showing signs of strain with fewer food control staff in local authorities and delays in the checks they carry out on food businesses,” said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO.

“This is at a time when the regulatory system faces increased challenges, particularly as we move towards new trading relationships after the UK leaves the EU.” NAO recommended that the current risk criteria for food standards require updating. “Local authorities told us that the risk assessment criteria for food standards focus too heavily on individual premises and a more intelligence-led approach (drawing on local intelligence and national market surveillance) is needed to target enforcement where it is needed most.”

As part of its Regulating our Future programme, the FSA plans to review the risk assessment criteria for both food hygiene and standards, with the review of food standards being progressed as a priority. It is moving towards more “private regulated assurance" whereby businesses will be able to use their own internal audits or private assurance standards, such as those developed by BRC Global Standards, to demonstrate compliance with food safety and standards law. In some cases this could mean businesses are subjected to no local authority inspections whatsoever. The FSA vehemently denies that this constitutes greater self-regulation; however, as Footprint has reported, critics are adamant that, in effect, this is precisely what the proposals would entail.

“The NAO is right that there is a pressing need for government to come up with a sustainable funding model for food regulation, and other vital areas of regulation,” said the Local Government Association. “This either needs to be through businesses meeting the costs of regulation, or through councils being properly funded.”

In 2018, 45% of consumers in England surveyed by the FSA reported that the safety of food served by UK restaurants and takeaways was a concern to them, and 42% were concerned about the safety of food sold in shops and supermarkets.

The NAO also highlighted wide support for mandatory display of hygiene ratings in England, with the FSA urged to “press ahead” with this. The Agency has prepared an evidence case for ministerial consideration. However, a statutory scheme will require new primary legislation and a suitable parliamentary bill has not yet been identified.

FSA chief executive Jason Feeney welcomed the NAO’s findings. “In particular we acknowledge that our sampling strategy needs to include an assessment of the amount of and approach to sampling that will ensure consumer confidence,” he said. “As recommended we are also pressing ahead with developing indicators to assess local authority performance and to ensure our Food Crime Unit is effective.”

Around 1m people in the UK suffer an illness from food each year potentially, costing £1 billion.

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