From insect proteins to food crime: regulators grapple with new food future 

Those tasked with keeping our food safe at a time of rapid social and technological change are having to find ways to do more with fewer resources. Nick Hughes reports.

Held at the end of June, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health’s annual conference provided a whistle-stop tour of a wide range of issues affecting food standards and safety. From insect protein to calorie labels here are four key takeaways for foodservice businesses from the event.

A new approach to ensuring food standards is coming

The dual forces of the pandemic and Brexit have created the need for the UK to take a new approach to ensuring food safety and hygiene standards. That’s the view of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) whose recent review of food standards across the UK highlighted how covid-19 created huge challenges for food enforcement as local authority teams were redeployed to support the pandemic response.

The FSA said inspections dropped to around a third of what they had been in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland during the peak of the pandemic and while rates have started to recover those on the ground still face major challenges in assessing business compliance against food law.

A key risk relates to workforce shortages with both the pandemic and Brexit creating challenges in recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of well-trained staff to carry out veterinary and hygiene inspections, according to the agency. 

At the same time, covid-19 has led to a change in consumer habits, notably a rise in home delivery. Third party aggregators like Deliveroo and Just Eat have seized the opportunity to bring new businesses onto their platforms, including major foodservice brands. We’ve also seen the emergence of new micro businesses that often involve individuals preparing food in their own kitchens for sale through platforms like Facebook Marketplace and Ebay. The FSA believes these businesses are not “inherently risky” but warns they may be unregistered and operating without adequate oversight or inspection.

To deal with the high volume of demand for inspection services, the FSA plans to move to a more risk-based “enterprise-level” regulatory system which will see multi-outlet businesses like supermarkets, restaurants and pub groups regulated as one entity rather than as multiple premise-based businesses. Speaking at the CIEH conference, Katie Pettifer, director of strategy, legal, communications and governance at the FSA, insisted the agency does not believe businesses should be “regulating themselves” but believes “there are more efficient ways of doing it”.

The FSA is currently working with several large retailers to trial an enterprise-level approach and also plans to work with the large food aggregators on a voluntary charter to assure the standard of food purchased through them.

Food innovation is creating opportunities … and challenges

FSA chief scientific adviser Professor Robin May told the conference how advances in food science and technology – often with a strong sustainability bent – can be a double-edged sword for regulators. Insect proteins, for example, can offer great potential for recycling food waste into food for animals or humans but can also carry risks where, for instance, an individual’s allergy to certain insects becomes a food-borne allergy.

May also spoke of the risk of microplastics re-entering the food chain if they are mixed up in waste that is then fed to insects.

There is interest too in the natural polymer chitin as a robust, biodegradable packaging material, but the fact it is found in shellfish poses potential risks for people with allergies, according to May.

Lab-grown meat is another area where there is “a lot of excitement and potential” but May noted how it will be critical for regulators to have the right tools in place to assess the authenticity of lab-grown products and figure out how the compositional purity can be checked. In short: “how can we harness all the benefits of these foods while managing the risks?”

The risk of food crime is real and growing

The FSA says there was no discernible increase in food crime as a result of the pandemic but is not resting on its laurels. A spike in commodity prices creates the perfect set of conditions for criminal activity in the food supply chain. The UK’s two food crime units – in England and Scotland – are in the process of building stronger relationships with online food retail platforms, food producers, and other stakeholders to pre-empt any possible increases in fraud or other illegal practices.

There were 100 successful disruptions of criminal activity within the food chain reported by the two units in 2021 and last year also saw the first prosecution in England stemming from an investigation into the illegal sale of dinitrophenol (DNP) for human consumption.

Darren Davies, head of the national food crime unit (NFCU) in England, told the CIEH conference that crimes generally fall into two categories: introducing unfit product into the food chain, and falsely claiming more premium status on lower-grade or cheaper products – for example claiming something is ‘organic’ when it isn’t or ‘produced in the UK’ when it is made overseas.

Live cases for the unit include an illicit meat cutting plant hidden behind a legitimate business with evidence of animal by-product being reintroduced to the human supply chain; and a case of a supplier passing off Brazilian corned beef as of British origin.

Davies suggested the foodservice sector is particularly vulnerable to food crime given its sprawling, fragmented nature; he urged people suspecting fraudulent activity to report it via the unit’s confidential hotline. Davies also highlighted how a self-assessment food fraud resilience tool is now live for businesses to use.

The NFCU recently received royal ascent to access wider investigative powers via the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.

Calorie labelling enforcement is not a high priority

Local enforcement officers faced with growing demands on their limited time and resources are having to prioritise where they focus their efforts. Verifying that new calorie labelling on menus is accurate is one task that looks set to be pushed down the priority list.

Calorie labelling became mandatory in April for foodservice businesses in England employing 250 or more people, while the Scottish government is currently consulting on its own plans to make calorie labelling on menus in the out of home sector a legal requirement. 

EHOs at the CIEH conference commented on how some companies were “really struggling” with the requirements for calorie labelling while others questioned the accuracy of tools available to calculate calorie counts.

“Who is going to check the truth in the figures” and “Have any EHO’s actually tested any products for the accuracy of calorie counting yet” were just two comments shared during a session with Tam Fry, chair of the National Obesity Forum.

Fry said his organisation had a very clear view that calorie labelling was an “essential” part of giving the consumer all the necessary information about the food on their plate. But concerns have been raised that calorie labels could fuel eating disorders while business groups have previously warned of the additional cost burden on businesses.

The likelihood that local authorities may adopt a light touch approach to enforcement will only add more fuel to the fire of calorie labelling critics.

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