Tens of thousands of food hygiene checks went overdue in 2017 and 2018 in the United Kingdom, according to a watchdog group.

Unchecked.uk found that only 11 percent of councils managed to carry out all their planned food checks on time, while eight local authorities missed more than 1,000 inspections of local food businesses.

A Freedom of Information request obtained by the Unchecked.uk group revealed more than 50,000 food hygiene inspections of rated premises were overdue in 2017-18. The group said serious hygiene breaches could be missed by under-resourced local authorities.

The percentage of scheduled food hygiene interventions achieved was 85.1 percent in 2017-18, according to Food Standards Agency (FSA) data. Reported food hygiene interventions in England, Northern Ireland and Wales was 350,348 in 2017-18. The FSA has suggested there is a trend of local authorities targeting higher risk establishments for food hygiene interventions rather than doing planned checks at lower risk sites.

Standards at high risk sites
Based on figures from 2018/19, while there is a 90 percent compliance rate for food safety across all premises, 80 percent of the highest risk A-rated premises and 36 percent of B-rated ones in England, Northern Ireland and Wales are failing to meet food hygiene standards such as cleanliness, correct handling of food, and temperature control.

This failure equates to businesses which achieved a hygiene rating of 2 or lower as part of the FSA’s Food Hygiene Rating Scheme.

All food premises in the U.K. are classed as A to E based on how much of a hazard they pose to the public, with A being the highest risk rating. A or B-rated businesses include sites with a record of poor hygiene, larger-scale premises handing raw meat or fish, those where food contamination is more likely to happen, and firms serving children or the elderly. Companies with a risk rating of A or B account for less than 5 percent of sites in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Inspections at A-rated sites should be carried out every six months.

Emma Rose, project lead at Unchecked.uk, said most food businesses are meeting basic hygiene standards, but compliance in high-risk premises is poor, and the number of overdue food checks raises questions about whether the U.K.’s food safety regime is ready for the challenges ahead.

“Local authority enforcement teams are just not being given the tools they need to do their job, which is undermining their efforts to keep people safe,” she said.

Putting figures into context
An FSA spokesperson told Food Safety News that the agency does not recognize the findings as a picture of food regulation.

“In fact, over 95 percent of businesses which have been inspected in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are broadly compliant or better. Local authorities inspect high risk businesses more frequently and take further action where necessary to protect public health. Over 99 percent of these businesses (categories A and B) were inspected on time in 2018-19.”

Kate Thompson, director of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health in Wales, said the findings need to be put into context.

“These findings are a sad reflection of austerity. Many local authority environmental health services have been cut to the bone. There is good evidence however that where resources are stretched, environmental health practitioners are adopting a risk-based approach to food safety,” she said.

“Overall, local authorities across England, Wales and Northern Ireland achieved 86.3 percent of all due food hygiene interventions in 2018/19. In respect of the highest risk establishments (A and B rated) they achieved 99.5 percent and 99.2 percent of due interventions respectively.”

Thompson said officers are also dealing with customer complaints about food, food incidents and outbreaks, Brexit planning and increases in food allergen cases.

“With increasing demands on food safety services, now is the time to look seriously at how they are funded and how we can attract new recruits into the profession. The CIEH has recently launched a campaign to showcase the work of environmental health practitioners but we can’t do this on our own. It needs a concerted effort from central and local government, industry and other stakeholders to explore how we can build a more sustainable workforce for the future,” she said.

Funding pressure on councils
Poor hygiene practices can increase emergence and spread of bacteria which can cause foodborne illness and food poisoning, such as Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli O157.

Steve Nash, a consumer advisor on E. coli O157, said while local authority staff and other government inspectors work hard, they are not being supported well enough.

“The Food Standards Agency now needs to take a good hard look at its failings and address them,” he said.

“What is needed is more truly independent local authority food inspectors on the ground, not food industry accreditation companies marking food businesses’ own homework – which is what the agency is planning for future U.K. food inspections.”

Councilor Simon Blackburn, chair of the Local Government Association’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said councils work hard on food hygiene and standards.

“Although it is ultimately the responsibility of food manufacturers, suppliers and retailers to ensure the products they produce or sell comply fully with food safety law, and are what they say they are, councils work extremely hard to maintain and improve food hygiene and standards,” he said.

“Significant funding pressures are affecting all council services – which include local regulatory services 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.”

A National Audit Office report earlier this year found spending on food hygiene by local authorities fell an estimated 19 percent between 2012-13 and 2017-18 and some local authorities were failing to meet their legal responsibilities to ensure food businesses comply with the law.

“As the National Audit Office said earlier this year, there is a pressing need for government to come up with a sustainable funding model for food regulation, and for other vital areas of regulation. This either needs to be through businesses meeting the costs of regulation, or through councils being properly funded,” said Blackburn.

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