There has been a significant reduction in food sampling across Scotland in the past few years, according to a report.

An analysis of information from the Scottish Food Sampling Database (SFSD) indicated there had been a decrease of 34 to 37 percent in sample records submitted since 2014-2015. However, three of 32 local authorities had increased sampling compared with 2014-2015.

Historically, local authorities had a target of two samples per 1,000 of the population for microbiology and three per 1,000 for chemical samples. However, SFSD data shows in 2018-2019 the figure had fallen below one sample per 1,000 of the population for chemical and microbiological sampling.

A Food Standards Scotland report found that while this may partly be attributed to improved targeting and risk based approaches to enforcement, the substantial reduction seems to have been driven by financial pressures at local authorities.

Food sampling decline
During the audit, which was done to assess the consistency of sampling policies across local authorities, 15 authorities submitted evidence which indicated resources allocated to food sampling had decreased during the past three years.

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For 14 of these, an analysis of data on SFSD verified a decrease of between 1 percent and 80 percent in the numbers of sampling records they submitted since 2014-2015. No evidence was provided to show reductions were because of improved targeting of resources.

Budgets decreased in 15 authorities, remained static in 10 and increased in seven, but some of these were by small amounts. Two local authorities with decreasing budgets showed they had reduced the number of samples taken during the past three years.

Activity from April to December 2019 shows sample numbers ranged from a low of six taken by one local authority to a high of 994 taken by another. The next highest was 305 in a total of 4,170.

There were 7,434 samples from July 2018 to June 2019 across all 32 local authorities in Scotland.

Role of public analysts
Evidence indicates Public Analysts (PAs) and Food Examiners (FEs) are not being fully used in their support role by all local authorities, according to the report.

A total of 22 local authorities consulted their PA/FE on the development of a sampling programs but one did not. Only six authorities confirmed the PA/FE had accompanied enforcement staff on visits or taken samples on behalf of the authority. Six local authorities could not provide evidence they had appointed a PA. Every food authority in Scotland is required to appoint one or more PAs.

All 30 authorities with sampling policies described the types of work undertaken, however scope varied. While all of them sampled foods from approved and manufacturing premises, only 18 referenced food crime or food fraud, 16 included imported foods and three referred to exported products.

Sampling programs for 2017-2020 were received from all 32 local authorities. However, not all provided evidence they had accounted for the number, type and risk ratings of food businesses and type of food produced in their area.

SFSD data identified the distribution of sampling activity varied across different authorities, with some showing a spread across manufacturers, caterers, retailers and primary producers, and others where sampling was recorded only for particular business types.

Evidence suggests there is no consistent strategy for developing sampling programs, according to the report.

Of 18 local authorities who had recent reports, 14 provided quantitative data such as sample numbers taken and results but only four had qualitative data such as sample outcomes and follow-up.

Consider national strategy
Authorities were asked if they had been unable to access a particular method required to support a sampling intervention. Four said they had this problem but they were niche areas not routine for official controls.

They were polymerase chain reaction assay of norovirus in shellfish, difficulty in finding analysis for Bacillus cereus toxins, quantification of microplastic in shellfish, and a survey to determine extent of an emerging issue.

The report found 10 local authorities had no evidence of food sampling performance in their most recent service plan review.

“The evidence suggests that not all local authorities are prioritizing food sampling in service planning, some with no reference to food sampling activities in their most recent service plan or service plan review. It was also evident that the enforcement policies in some local authorities were not up-to-date,” according to the report.

“The evidence shows that reductions in local authority budgets are having an impact on food sampling activity, which is an essential official control to ensure the verification of compliance with feed and food law.

“A national strategy for food sampling and testing, including enhanced intelligence and data sharing should be considered, to verify the safety and standards of food import and export markets and address current and emerging challenges in food protection.”

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