British food, water and air quality standards are all under threat as vital inspections plummet and laws are no longer enforced, according to new research.
Unchecked, a project of The Ecology Trust, found significant declines in the budgets and staff of enforcement agencies overseeing vital areas of public policy – including environmental protection, health and safety and consumer protection. This has created a dangerous “enforcement gap”.
Funding at the Food Standards Agency, for example, fell by 47% between 2009/10 and 2016/17, with meat inspections down 32%. The number of environmental health officers in England and Wales also fell by a third, with food product testing down 44%.
“When food production goes unchecked, recent history tells us all too clearly that we end up with dirty meat, food poisoning, food fraud and substitution with unexpected species such as horsemeat,” said Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain.
In June, the National Audit Office warned that food safety and standards are “under strain”, with some local authorities failing to meet their legal responsibilities to ensure food businesses comply with food laws. 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 findings make the case for halting the erosion of public protection, and in particular the environmental health workforce in local government.
The Unchecked report also highlighted significant reductions in funding for bodies like Natural England, the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency. Prosecutions by the Environment Agency plummeted by 80% in the period assessed.
In a letter to The Times, 20 major organisations from across UK civil society warned: “The country is asking local authorities and key regulators, including the Food Standards Agency, the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and others, to do their work with on average 50 per cent less funding than ten years ago. The steep reduction in inspections and monitoring of regulated business in recent years risks undermining the achievement of public policy objectives.”
The report states: “Most businesses take pride in acting responsibly and fairly. But, left unchecked, rogue operators are free to undermine the protections that we take for granted.”