The Food Standards Agency is currently more concerned about issues relating to food standards than hygiene, according to the authority’s chief executive.

Emily Miles, chief executive of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), said the agency is more worried about the food standards space than the food hygiene area. Food hygiene is about the safety of food and standards is about its composition.

“If you look at the outcome indicators that we at the FSA assess for foodborne disease, particularly Campylobacter, Listeria, E. coli and Salmonella, which are the top four, and, as a country, we haven’t got above that threshold recently, so the controls in place — which the local authorities and the FSA operate — seem to be working effectively to contain those.”

Miles was speaking at an inquiry on ensuring food safety and standards based on a report by the National Audit Office. The Public Accounts Committee also heard from Steve Wearne, director of Global Affairs at the FSA, this past week.

Resource and staff decline
Miles, who has been in the role for only a month, said there are about 300 officers looking at food standards in England, compared with 1,600 for food safety.

“Although the FSA follows the practice of local authorities and looks closely at what they are doing, at the moment we do not have the same outcome indicators to assess whether they are succeeding with the things that we want them to do. We will be introducing some indicators in the next couple of years, but I think I have less confidence in that system than in the hygiene one,” she said.

“There is always risk, and we are not going to be able to completely get rid of the risk. There is less resource, which makes me anxious, because I think there are the risks that we have described. What the FSA can also do, however, is help to design a system that is more efficient.”

FSA had been collecting inspection data on an annual basis through a local authority enforcement monitoring system but is scheduled to move to a balanced scorecard approach in the next year or two.

The two local authorities at step three of a four step process on inspection monitoring are Northamptonshire and Birmingham. The last level would mean the FSA asking ministers to use default and direction powers.

Reform of the regulatory system has included strategic surveillance, a view with information about food businesses in one place and a national electronic registration of companies. In terms of the latter, 40 local authorities are using it to register new food businesses with the aim of expanding the number to 150 by the end of this year, and 300 by the end of 2020.

Environmental health has suffered a 20 percent cut in the last few years, and food standards staff about a 50 percent decline in resources. There is also concern about staffing levels within local authorities due to a lack of training and budget constraints.

“In terms of competent people to carry out food standards and food safety inspections, we want to look at the competency framework, to see if we can make any adjustments, so that we can be less strict about the lower-risk places – perhaps you could have people who are slightly less qualified doing those sorts of inspections, so they have got a bit more flexibility,” said Miles.

“In fact, we have given that kind of flexibility to local authorities in the run-up to no-deal EU exit preparations, so that they can use slightly less qualified environmental health officers to do lower-risk work.”

GM sampling capacity
In the last year for which data is available, local authorities in England took around 30,000 samples. A recent FSA review looked at lab capacity and sampling approach. The agency has set a framework for how sampling should happen and expects it to start shaping what authorities do locally.

“Our conclusion was that there is sufficient capacity in the system for what we need at the moment. There was just one area where we thought there might not be sufficient capability, which was GM, where we might need to call on that,” said Miles.

“But we can access more capacity through U.K. national reference laboratories and international partner laboratories. We do not have to rely on the public laboratories in England to do this work; we can go elsewhere. We also rely enormously on Public Health England’s food examiner laboratories…”

Worcestershire County Council will close its scientific services lab this year. It is the only U.K. lab accredited for screening Chinese rice for genetically modified organisms. Public analyst labs in England reduced from 13 to nine post-2013 and has now fallen to three.

Miles said there was a risk with sampling of hitting the target and missing the point.

“A local authority could just go off and do five samples but that may not be tailored to the risk required. There needs to be a more active conversation between the FSA and local authorities about how to tailor that. We want the high-level framework for sampling, where we are setting some standards so it needs to be directed based on risk and on sound statistics, conducted openly in open data and conforming to international standards.”

The FSA chief executive said it would be “foolish” to suggest another horse meat scandal could not occur.

“On the sampling point, I think is interesting that of the sampling budgets spent in 2013-14, £1.6 million was spent by the FSA on sampling, but that did not find horse meat in the U.K. It was Ireland that discovered the horse meat issue, and we reacted. Sampling is not necessarily the answer to all this.”

Miles told the committee how the agency uses predictive analytics and data.

“We know that the thing that most often gets Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) alerts is figs from Turkey. There is a particular fungus on them called aflatoxin. We took that information, trade data and climate data, and we used that to try and predict where this fungus might show up on other products,” she said.

“We established that it was quite likely at certain times of the year, because of certain climates, to be on Brazil nuts from Bolivia and ground nuts from somewhere else in South America, and we were then able to use that data to inform port health authorities and work with them to try and manage the risk of that product coming into the country, and basically make sure that they pay extra attention to those sorts of commodities.”

Food crime spending and outcomes
The agency will be presenting a case to health ministers on making display of hygiene ratings mandatory. In England, one in 20 food businesses are rated 0 or 1, but for takeaway restaurants it is one in 10.

Since 2018, FSA has had a memorandum of understanding with the Food Industry Intelligence Network (FIIN) which has seen 50,000 lab tests and traceability checks.

Miles said £4 million ($5.1 million) was spent on the National Food Crime Unit last year and £5.6 million ($7.2 million) this year.

“So far their intelligence has led to convictions for manslaughter in the U.K. and arrests and safeguarding action in seven other countries, including Ukraine, Poland and the U.S. They think they have disrupted 27 instances of food crime through that intelligence,” she said.

“They have evaluated 7,000 pieces of information. They have worked in particular on the issue of DNP – a nasty chemical that people have consumed to try to lose weight. They have managed to get 40 websites removed or suspended. They have taken listings off online marketplaces and got social media accounts suspended.”

Miles added the NFCU had just completed an investigation, which hopefully will lead to a prosecution, where they interviewed 13 suspects.

Steve Wearne said local authorities are doing the best they can with the resources they have, and are targeting their food standards work.

“Although only 37 percent of programmed food standards inspections were undertaken by local authorities last year, they rate businesses according to risk from A to C and 85 percent of interventions in the highest-risk businesses were undertaken. The only heartening fact is that local authorities are still prioritizing high-risk businesses for food standards within the resources they have available. Even so, the percentage of scheduled interventions is down to the low to mid-80s,” he said.

“I think we are moving from a system that is based simply on sampling and reacting to the results of sampling, which quite often means you react after the event, to a system that uses open data and closed data from the industry to predict what might happen and so get ahead of the curve.”

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