Gaps in capability to perform some chemical analyses have been identified in a review into official laboratories in the United Kingdom.

The review assessed the capacity, capability, and governance of the U.K. official food and feed laboratory system and made recommendations to address gaps and weaknesses to maintain safety standards when the U.K. leaves the European Union (EU), a process known as Brexit.

The number of official labs for food and feed testing has declined in recent years which prompted authorities to consider whether services will be sufficient after EU exit.

The first phase of a two-part review was done by Fera Science Ltd, a joint venture between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Capita. It found several areas have an insufficient number of U.K. based Official Control Laboratories (OCLs) and/or Official Laboratories (OLs) capable of performing enforcement for feed and food controls.

OCLs support Food Standards Scotland (FSS), the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and local authorities by testing the safety and standards of food and animal feed. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the FSA is responsible for official controls for feed and food enforcement and in Scotland it is FSS.

Chemical analysis problem

Areas where there was limited or no capability included determining concentrations of all regulated plant toxins in feed and food samples; testing needed to show compliance with regulations on materials and articles in contact with food; concentrations of halogenated Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in feed and food; glycidyl fatty esters; some feed additives; some authenticity tests and GM testing.

“The cost to set up the analyses for the areas of limited/no capability in a laboratory is prohibitive unless large numbers of samples can be guaranteed together with a sampling strategy and budget. Considering the number of official samples taken in these areas in recent years then it is maybe not surprising that this capability has not been developed/maintained at this level,” according to the review.

All labs involved in official controls for feed and food were found to have the instrumentation and skilled resource to be able to implement new methods in their labs with appropriate funding.

While the labs won’t be prepared straight away after Brexit as it takes time to develop, in-house validate and gain accreditation, with appropriate training most tests required to support enforcement could be covered by the network of OCLs and OLs. These labs also have access to a network of overseas partner labs, National Reference Laboratories (NRLs) and other testing labs by sub-contracting.

The review found there was lab capability for official testing of samples for microbiological contamination across the U.K. with a number of Food Examiner and Public Analyst labs able to do the required analyses.

The second part of the review

The second phase of the review was done by Ernst & Young, who did a risk assessment on the “as-is” situation to identify mitigating actions which could reduce risks.

Identified high risks in the U.K. food and feed enforcement system included insufficient risk assessment, as the U.K. depends on what is currently created by the EU; inability to plan for required capacity and capability; limited use of private labs due to potential conflicts of interest and an actual or perceived increase in food safety incidents impacting consumers, tourism and trade.

Risks from the current system mean the U.K. cannot continue with it as is, so Ernst & Young created a “to-be” model. A Target Operating Model (TOM) was developed to provide a fit-for-purpose lab system for the future.

They identified six areas where improvements could be made to address risks in the current system. These were strategy and accountability, funding, organization of labs, public analysts’ appointment, public analysts’ qualification, and food sampling.

The model includes one central accountable body coordinating the creation and delivery of an intelligence-led national risk assessment which could be led by the FSA or FSS and a central commissioning body responsible for delivering the strategy set by the former agency.

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