Food standards delivery in the United Kingdom is hampered by inadequate resources and an out of date approach to regulation, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

The agency reviewed how such work is handled across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

FSA surveyed local authorities (LAs) between March and May 2017 across the three countries and 104 replied. It assessed how LAs plan and prioritize food standards work, the resources and capacity they have and how they measure success of programs.

The current approach to delivery of food standards controls is set in the Food Law Code of Practice (FLCOP), which has separate versions covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

‘We can’t just patch this up’

Heather Hancock, FSA chair, said the survey provides evidence of the scale and nature of the problems so it can design and deliver a better way to protect consumers in the future.

“We have had growing concerns that the delivery of food standards is not working as well as it should be. Our results show that food standards delivery is hampered by inadequate resources, and an out of date and inflexible approach to regulation,” she said.

“Whilst the position varies across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it clearly demands action and we can’t just patch this up. It needs a fundamental look at how we provide better protection for consumers in the future, with flexibility to respond to rapidly changing circumstances, and targeting risks wherever they arise.”

The survey found variation in food standards resources between LAs, and between England, Wales and Northern Ireland, increasing the potential for inconsistency of official controls.

Resource levels in England were lower than Wales and Northern Ireland, with 22 percent of English LAs having less than one full-time equivalent for food standards work. A total of 15 percent of firms are unrated for food standards risk and this figure is higher for some LAs.

Almost half of 94 respondents said their LA had reduced food standards resources in the last three years with more than 25 percent reporting a reduction of 25 percent or greater. They also indicated an increase in registered food businesses.

There are more environmental health practitioners (EHPs) enforcing food standards legislation across England and Wales but a lack of information on the training and support provided, and the ways in which competence is ensured and maintained.

Just over half of those surveyed said they measure the impact/success of food standards work but this is often limited to indicators such as numbers of notices issued/inspections achieved, rather than quantifying impact the service has on local businesses and consumers.

Review welcomed

Michael Walker, Referee Analyst and head of the Office of the Government Chemist, LGC said the conclusions are refreshingly candid in recognizing failures in the system and FSA is to be applauded in aiming to address these.

“Much can be done to improve consistency of approach and effective targeting of resources. But it is openly acknowledged in the report that it is highly unlikely that available resources to deliver food standards controls will increase in the near future without intervention by central government. Thus there is a tension between the ambitious aims of the review and the practical ability to deliver sustainable modernization in the short term,” he told Food Safety News.

“There is ample legislation covering food standards including the quality, composition, labelling, presentation, chemical contamination and advertising of food. But policy responsibility for and delivery of official controls of food standards (i.e. enforcement) exist in a complex landscape.”

The Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) encouraged FSA to work quickly on the review and the Regulating our Future (RoF) programme to inform on science and technology driven approaches so the required resources to deliver effective services is known and can be deployed.

“The review reports on what is a creaking system and model; however there are positive moves towards a more outcome and risk-based system with many LAs already focusing more on new and higher risk businesses, and allergens. We also want to reiterate that the primary responsibility lies with those who make and sell food, with a level playing field provided by official controls, policy, regulation and enforcement,” said the group.

IFST is a UK professional body for those involved in food science and technology.

Removal of central funding

The survey also found removal of central funding from the FSA is likely to have an increased impact on food standards sampling in future and significant value is placed in the Public Analyst service.

Figures show a reduction in sample numbers in England and Wales up to the end of March 2017 with a 14 percent decrease in England and 12 percent fall in Wales from 2014/15. The main reason for the fall in sampling activity was removal of FSA central funding.

High risk sites and allergens in catering establishments were the most common food standards priorities for LAs. Other areas included composition and speciation in meat products and use of undeclared prohibited ingredients in food supplements.

Almost one in 10 of 103 respondents stated their LA did not have measures in place to provide an effective response should an incident such as horsemeat arise in future.

A total of 84 percent said their LA did have arrangements in place, with over half saying response to such an incident would be resourced from within, meaning it could be impacted by further reductions in resource. Of the authorities with arrangements in place, 60 percent said their approach to responding to a major incident had not been tested.

David Pickering, from Buckinghamshire and Surrey Trading Standards, said data in the report will be used to design a system of regulation that recognizes the importance of food standards so consumers can be confident that food is safe and what it says it is and businesses meet their responsibilities.

“We will continue to contribute to the RoF process to produce a regulatory framework that enables resources to be targeted in the most effective and efficient way, highlighting best practice and maximizing the impact of the work we do.”

The review and survey findings is scheduled to be discussed at the next FSA Board meeting on Dec. 5 in London.

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