The food safety and standards system in the United Kingdom is showing signs of “strain,” according to a report by the country’s National Audit Office (NAO).

The report discusses the effectiveness of current regulations to ensure that food is safe and is what it says it is. It covers food safety controls and food standards, which are the Food Standards Agency’s responsibility, and composition and labeling requirements under the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) remit.

The food regulation system is complex, has come under increasing financial pressure and has elements that are outdated, according to the NAO report.

NAO said it has “concerns” about the ability of the current regulatory system to achieve value for money in response to uncertainty ahead, including new trading scenarios following the U.K.’s exit from the European Union and other emerging risks to food safety. About half of all food consumed in the U.K. is produced outside the country.

Emerging risks include climate change, population growth, crop disease, food fraud and potentially importing more food from non-EU countries.

“The regulatory system is showing signs of strain with less control staff in local authorities and delays in the checks they carry out on food businesses. This is at a time when the regulatory system faces increased challenges, particularly as we move towards new trading relationships after the U.K. leaves the EU,” said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO.

The agency made four recommendations to the FSA relating to sampling strategy, introduction of mandatory hygiene rating display, gaps in enforcement powers, and verifying impact the National Food Crime Unit is having on food fraud and performance of local authorities.

About 1 million people in the U.K. suffer a foodborne illness each year. The total cost was estimated to be roughly £1 billion ($1.27 billion) annually in 2015.

FSA reaction on sampling and food crime unit

FSA spent £6.2 million ($7.9 million) of its budget on EU exit preparations and received £15 million ($19.1 million) of additional EU exit funding across 2017-18 and 2018-19.

The NAO recommended that within six months of the U.K. leaving the EU, FSA and government should start to evaluate the medium- and longer-term impact on the food regulation system and identify potential resource gaps.

FSA has already introduced online business registration. By April this year, 10 local authorities had tested the system and the agency expects it to be fully in place by April 2020.

Jason Feeney, FSA chief executive, said it is taking steps to address recommendations aimed at the agency.

“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. As recommended we are also pressing ahead with developing indicators to assess local authority performance and to ensure our Food Crime Unit is effective,” he said.

“We’re delighted that the NAO supports our aim to introduce mandatory display of hygiene ratings in food businesses in England, and we are making firm plans to provide our Food Crime Unit with the powers it needs to work independently.”

Food hygiene spending and staff decline

Cost of food controls in England in 2016-17 was an estimated £164 million ($209 million). Spending on food hygiene by local authorities fell from £125 million ($159 million) to £101 million ($129 million) between 2012-13 and 2017-18 because of funding pressures. Food hygiene staff numbers declined by 13 percent relative to the number of food businesses operating during that period. Food standards staff dropped by 45 percent.

The report found some local authorities are failing to meet their legal responsibilities to ensure food businesses comply with the law.

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The proportion of hygiene checks of businesses that were due and successful rose between 2012-13 and 2017-18, from 82 percent to 86 percent. However, less than half the standards checks to ensure food is what it says that were due took place, with only 37 percent done in 2017-18. Local authorities attributed delays to staff shortages.

Between 2012-13 and 2017-18, the level of sampling fell by 34 percent, and in 2017-18, there were 16 English local authorities that did not carry out any. In a 2013 NAO report, the number of public analysis laboratories in England, which provide food standards analytical services to local authorities, had declined from 13 to nine. The number has now fallen to five.

Local authorities can voluntary report sampling results on the U.K. Food Surveillance System (UKFSS). In 2017, the FSA said it was replacing the system but it has not yet confirmed a timetable for the transition. The FSA officials are scheduled to discuss the approach to future sampling at a board meeting set for June 19.

Councilor Simon Blackburn, from the Local Government Association, said although it is ultimately the responsibility of manufacturers, suppliers, and retailers to comply with food safety law, councils work hard to maintain and improve food hygiene and standards.

“Councils have lost 60 pence out of every £1 they had from the government to spend on services since 2010. These significant funding cuts are affecting all council services – which include trading standards budgets and staffing being cut by around half since 2010 – and undoubtedly make it extremely difficult for some councils to maintain previous levels of food work, given the competing demands of areas such as social care, children’s services, and homelessness,” he said.

Consumer confidence

FSA assesses whether food is what it says it is based on consumer confidence rather than objective evidence of food authenticity, but NAO said the agency has begun to develop measures to improve data in this area.

The public needs better information to make well-informed choices about what food to buy or services to use and they remain unclear on what information businesses should provide about whether a food contains allergens, according to the report.

Caroline Normand, from consumer group Which? said the public expects food to meet the best possible safety standards.

“However, it’s clear our enforcement regime is currently under massive strain and could be under even greater pressure if the responsibilities of local authorities are stretched further by Brexit. As we prepare to leave the EU, effective food enforcement must be a top priority for the government. Working with regulators, it must ensure that a robust, independent system is in place so that people can trust that the food they’re eating is safe,” she said.

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said if action is not taken to reverse cuts there may be more food safety incidents such as the recent Listeria outbreak linked to three deaths.

“For the public’s safety, the display of hygiene ratings must be made mandatory for all businesses across the U.K., to ensure customers across the nation uphold their right to make informed decisions about where they eat, avoiding risks to their health. It is right that councils can penalize businesses who put their customers at risk,” she said.

“These dramatic falls in staffing highlight the damage caused by years of underfunding for local authorities, who play a vital role in ensuring food safety and hygiene is at the highest standard.”

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