Virtual food hygiene inspections are being used in the United Kingdom to tackle a backlog caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Digital inspections can help authorities manage a build-up at lower risk establishments and minimize risk of contamination as inspectors can visit multiple sites in a short space of time.

Inspections are completed by food businesses electronically uploading documentation. Then they can be guided around the premises by an inspector who can carry out observations, ask questions and capture mark-up images for their assessment.

Tendring District Council’s Environmental Health team piloted Digital Inspections from Scores on the Doors (SOTD), allowing staff at the council in Essex, England, to inspect food premises from their home offices during the lockdown.

Restaurateurs use smartphones to do a tour of their property and share important documents, under direction of an Environmental Health Officer (EHO). The tools enable video interaction and capturing of annotated photographs.

Help navigate the new normal
It meant lower risk sites could be reviewed without the risk of contamination by an officer visiting several premises, and preventing a backlog of inspections required once lockdown restrictions were eased.

These tools help local authorities regulate changes of use more quickly, ensuring establishments that switched to takeaway and delivery are compliant with food safety standards. While the government relaxed planning measures during lockdown to allow establishments to adapt, inspections were paused due to potential further spread of COVID-19.

All planned food hygiene, food standards and animal feed interventions were suspended from April 18 to July 17. However, some inspections may have taken place at high risk businesses, new companies, those changing practices, or that have had enforcement action or customer complaints.

Carol Archibald, fellow of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, said digital inspections can help navigate the way through the “new normal.”

“Councils throughout the UK are now facing a 3-month backlog at a minimum, this is not only due to rescheduling postponed inspections that were scheduled to take place prior to, and during lockdown, but also due to thousands of businesses that adapted and switched to takeaway services to keep the country moving,” said Archibald, who is also team leader for food, health and safety, port health and animal welfare at Tendring District Council.

In March, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) said it will not recognize any certificates re-issued following a virtual or remote audit and provided six-month extensions for audits by its certification bodies. For sites unable to have an on-site audit and renew certification before it expired, GFSI proposed using a food safety risk assessment. It is now allowing part of certification audits to be conducted remotely and has updated its benchmarking requirements.

Focus on low risk sites
An average inspection costs the taxpayers about £150 (U.S. $190) and there are half a million food firms across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In 2018-19, there were 238,000 inspections, taking the figure to more than £37 million ($46.7 million) with the current backlog, that amount would further increase without remote support if all physical inspections were to take place, according to SOTD.

Michael Talbot, Tendring District Council cabinet member for environment, said it is important businesses have good hygiene measures in place for coronavirus and food.

“Tendring, like councils across the country, potentially faced a big backlog of inspections; not only from those re-scheduled due to lockdown, but with the number of businesses switching their trading model to takeaway services, for example,” he said.

Each business is given a risk score from A to D with A being the highest risk. For example, a hospital would be classed as A, while a local café would be classified as a C; a corner shop with pre-wrapped sweets would be a D. To qualify for digital inspections, establishments would typically be operating at levels C and D. Inspectors update their back-office systems in the same way as physical inspections and this updates the FSA’s Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) database.

Paul Hiscoe, founder and managing director of SOTD, said digital inspections ensures lower risk establishments are analyzed safely and inspectors are free to visit the higher risk ones in person.

“Once the current need to avoid contact subsides, we expect digital inspections to remain as a permanent feature. It is more cost and time-efficient than physical visits, and particularly useful for low-risk premises and revisits. Pricing is on a per completed inspection basis and dependent on volume. It is almost always lower than travelling costs,” he said.

“It is strongly recommend to get a floor-plan in advance so that the EHO or Environmental Health Practitioner (EHP) can direct the food business operator around the premises to investigate the areas she or he wants to see. If the EHP is not satisfied, then a physical confirmatory visit should be undertaken.”

The platform is being used by a number of local authorities in the country and others are piloting the software. Uptake has also included animal welfare, animal licensing, trading standards, and the police, according to SOTD.

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